Water advocates defend ‘Kentucky Kickback’ in debt bill

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Toohey defended the water project as crucial to the states of Kentucky and Illinois.

“This important project in Illinois has a 7.4 to 1 benefit-cost ratio as determined by the Corps of Engineers’ Chief’s Report approved by Congress, and is estimated to return more than $410 million annually in transportation cost savings and benefits when it is completed,” Toohey said. 

The Senate Conservative Fund (SCF) blasted the water provision immediately after the legislative language of the debt-ceiling bill was released on Wednesday.

The group, which bankrolled a campaign to convince Republican lawmakers to pursue the shutdown strategy, drew parallel to the so-called “Cornhusker Kickback” that was included in President’s Obama healthcare law. The SCF pushed lawmakers to withhold support for continuing the government’s funding or increasing the federal debt ceiling unless the president made changes to the controversial healthcare law.

McConnell’s office has denied responsibility for the water provision in the debt bill, telling The Hill on Wednesday that it was inserted into the measure by the White House and the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“The process is that OMB (the White House) submits a list which is scrubbed by chair and ranker (Feinstein/Alexander) of each subcommittee (energy and water in this case),” said Don Stewart, a spokesman for McConnell, in an email. “We are not OMB or the chair/ranking member of the subcommittee.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) later agreed that he was the one who requested the provision, and argued it was needed to ensure $160 million in contracts are not canceled by the Army Corps of Engineers.

“According to the Army Corps of Engineers, 160 million taxpayer dollars will be wasted because of canceled contracts if this language is not included. Sen. [Diane] Feinstein and I, as chairman and ranking member of the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, requested this provision. It has already been approved this year by the House and Senate,” Alexander said in a statement to Buzzfeed.

The funding for the Olmsted Locks and Dam was increased from $775,000 to more than $2.9 million in the bill that was approved by both chambers of Congress on Wednesday evening.

The debate over the funding for the water project comes as the House is scheduled to vote next week on a new bill authorizing port and waterways projects. The Senate has already passed a version of the measure, which is known as the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA).

Congress has not passed a new WRDA bill since 2008.

-Ben Geman contributed to this report.