Waterways bill eyed as solution for Flint

Waterways bill eyed as solution for Flint
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Lawmakers and stakeholders are urging leadership to take up a bipartisan waterways bill before the summer recess, casting the legislation as a way to break Congress out of gridlock while delivering emergency aid to Flint, Mich.

Panels in the House and Senate each advanced their own legislation this year to boost the nation’s ports and waterways, fulfilling a promise from committee leaders to return to a two-year cycle of authorizing projects under the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). 

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Industry groups are touting the Senate version of the bill, in part because it increases investments in the nation’s aging drinking water system, but also because the upper chamber tends to take longer to act than the House.

“There seems to be interest on both sides of the aisle in making this something that the Congress can get done this year,” said Brian Pallasch, managing director of government relations and infrastructure initiatives at the American Society of Civil Engineers. “The Senate process takes a little bit longer, so getting them to move would spur the House to take action, which can take less time.”

The Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee endorsed a WRDA bill in April that identifies $4.5 billion worth of water-related infrastructure projects and authorizes $4.9 billion for drinking and clean water infrastructure over five years.

The measure provides $220 million in direct emergency assistance to address drinking water crises in stricken communities such as Flint, where water from the Flint River corroded the city's pipes, contaminating the water supply with lead. 

The Flint package would be paid for by cutting funds from the Energy Department’s Advanced Vehicle Manufacturing Technology loan program.

The Congressional Budget Office scored the bill earlier this week, confirming that the cost of the legislation is fully offset, which makes it even more palatable to the Republican-led Senate.

“This bill is a win for every Member of Congress,” Sen. Jim InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeSenate set to bypass Iran fight amid growing tensions This week: Congress set for clash on Trump's border request Trump urged to quickly fill Pentagon post amid Iran tensions MORE (R-Okla.), chairman of the EPW Committee, said in a statement earlier this week. “The Senate has an opportunity to now take up WRDA and show that we are working together for the good of the American people and fulfilling what they sent us here to do.”

“As I’ve discussed with Leader McConnell, I am confident that we can quickly move this bill through the Senate in the remaining weeks of this work period,” he added.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved a $5 billion WRDA bill to boost the nation’s ports, harbors, dams and other water resources.

The legislation, however, does not contain the same clean drinking water provisions as the Senate version due to jurisdictional differences between the two committees.

Over 90 industry groups, including the American Association of Port Authorities, American Society of Civil Engineers, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to Senate leadership this week urging them to pass the WRDA legislation before breaking for the August recess.

Local lobbying efforts on the issue are also being stepped up. K&L Gates is now lobbying for the City of Murfreesboro’s Water and Sewer Department on the House and Senate bills, according to disclosure forms filed this week.

Stakeholders say the legislation, which authorizes dozens of projects throughout the country, would give lawmakers something to tout when they return to their districts — especially if it is a vehicle for helping Flint and other communities facing a drinking water crisis.

Congress is still dealing with the fallout from the recent chaos surrounding a House vote on a controversial spending bill amendment, as well as a Democratic sit-in over gun control on the House floor this week that halted legislative action and forced the chamber to recess several days earlier than planned.

“In this time of trying to get stuff done in Congress, this is something most of us can agree on,” Pallasch said. 

But even though the Flint aid in the Senate WRDA bill could help incentivize leaders to bring the legislation to the floor, it could also draw conservative opposition.

Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeOvernight Defense: Officials brief Congress after Iran shoots down drone | Lawmakers fear 'grave situation' | Trump warns Iran | Senate votes to block Saudi arms sales | Bombshell confession at Navy SEAL's murder trial The 7 GOP senators who voted to block all or part of Trump's Saudi arms sale Senate votes to block Trump's Saudi arms sale MORE (R-Utah) stalled an energy modernization measure that had Flint aid earlier this year until the emergency funding was stripped from the package. 

Butt senators aren’t expecting one individual’s hold to stop the WRDA legislation from moving forward.

“He’d be objecting to the entire WRDA bill, which is something he can do, but I do expect it to have 60 votes and pass,” Sen. Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann Stabenow It's time to let Medicare to negotiate drug prices Trump judicial nominee says he withdrew over 'gross mischaracterizations' of record Trump judicial nominee withdraws amid Republican opposition: report MORE (D-Mich.) told The Hill last month.

The House and Senate versions are billions of dollars apart, largely because of the missing drinking water component in the House bill, meaning the chambers would have to go to conference.

There’s also some concern that the water bill lacks the same deadline or urgency of "must-pass" measures like a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization or annual spending legislation.

Still, authorization bills are a significantly easier lift than appropriations measures, and stakeholders believe there is enough time for a conference. The WRDA bill is widely seen as the last opportunity to get a major piece of infrastructure legislation — and Flint aid — over the finish line this Congress. 

“This is a bill that’s ready to move,” Pallasch said. “There’s certainly plenty of time to pass this legislation.”

Timothy Cama contributed to this report.