By Keith Laing - 11/20/13 12:42 PM EST
Lawmakers in the House and Senate formally opened negotiations on an $8.2 billion bill to boost U.S. ports and waterways on Wednesday.
The bicameral conference committee on a new Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) met for the first time as lawmakers began their attempt to hash out a bipartisan compromise that has often eluded them in recent years.
The leaders of the 32-member panel from both chambers expressed confidence that the water bill would be different.
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) agreed.
“Yesterday, Chairman Shuster, ranking member [Sen. David] Vitter [R-La.], ranking member [Rep. Nick] Rahall [D-W.Va.] and I met to begin work on this critical conference,” Boxer said. “We had a productive discussion, and I am very optimistic we can come to an agreement and send this bill to the president’s desk.”
Each lawmaker took pains to defend their chambers’ version of the water infrastructure measure.
“I am proud to say that the Senate developed a fiscally responsible WRDA bill with no earmarks. We figured out a fair way to identify true needs,” Boxer said.
“The bill will allow construction of important port projects that are vital to the flow of commerce and invests in restoring our greatest environmental treasures — like the Florida Everglades,” the California Democrat continued. “The Senate bill also establishes important, bipartisan regional initiatives to address high-priority water resource issues that affect approximately 40 states.”
Shuster was equally as effusive about his chamber’s version of the legislation, which even has an extra R in its name to differentiate it from the Senate’s bill.
“Many people have asked me how they should refer to this conference – is it ‘WRRDA” or is it ‘WRDA,’” Shuster said, referencing the full name of the House’s version of the bill, the Water Resources Reform and Development Act.
“They are pronounced the same, and at some point I’m sure Sen. Boxer and I will have a discussion about figuring that out,” Shuster continued.
Shuster said the House’s version of the bill was “the most policy and reform-focused legislation of its kind in the last two decades.
“This was one of our highest priorities,” the House Transportation Committee chairman said. “Our new name reflects landmark reforms – the extra R in our bill stands for ‘reform.’ We also sought to have the most fiscally responsible WRRDA bill in history.”
Shuster said the House’s version of the water bill “deauthorizes $12 billion of old, inactive projects that were authorized prior to the current law, and fully offsets new authorizations.
“Our bill establishes a new, transparent process for future bills to review and prioritize water resources development activities — with strong Congressional oversight, and without Congress handing over its authority to the executive branch,” Shuster said. “We have been recognized by leading outside watchdog groups for having a bill with no earmarks and for keeping congressional oversight without ceding authority to the [Army] Corps [of Engineers].”
Republican leaders in the House disagreed with the Senate’s plan to allow the Army Corps of Engineers to select port and waterways projects that should receive the funding that is included in the water bill.
Neither chamber’s version of the measure includes direct funding for the port and waterways that are selected, however. Instead, the bill authorizes the Appropriations Committee to include funding for the projects in their future budgets.
Shuster and Boxer said the chambers were not so far apart on their approaches to the water bill that the differences between them could not be solved.
“At its heart, this conference is about ensuring that we don’t lose sight of the importance of a strong infrastructure,” Shuster said. “I look forward to working together to support our water transportation network to keep America competitive, provide a foundation for job growth, and foster a more robust economy.”
“Is our bill perfect? No,” Boxer added. “But I am proud that, in this very tough legislative atmosphere, we passed a bill that will directly support approximately 500,000 jobs and sustain the millions of jobs that depend on our national water transportation system. I am very proud of that and so is Sen. Vitter.”
“I believe that we can all come together and show the American people that Congress can pass a bill that is good for jobs, good for local communities, and good for the economy,” Boxer continued.