House and Senate water bills face $1 billion difference

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The House passed its version of a waterways bill last week that included a compromise deal on emergency funding for Flint, Mich., but the work is far from over. 

Lawmakers will have to reconcile the narrower House legislation with its much larger Senate counterpart when they return from recess. 

{mosads}Although it’s still unclear whether the negotiations will take place in a formal conference, the relevant committees are expected to open up discussions on the matter soon. 

“There are a number of major differences in the bills,” Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), ranking member on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told reporters last month. “It would give the staff something to do while we’re all twiddling our thumbs to see who’s the next president.” 

Here are some of the major differences – and potential sticking points – that lawmakers will need to hammer out after the elections. 

Flint Aid 

In the lame-duck session, all eyes will be on whether Congress can get Flint aid over the finish line. 

Democratic protests over the lack of Flint funding in a short-term spending bill nearly brought the government to the brink of a shutdown at the beginning of this month. 

The Senate’s Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), which was passed in September, included $220 million in direct emergency assistance for Flint and other communities in the U.S. facing a drinking water crisis. 

The Senate package also would create a new grant program to reduce lead levels in drinking water and offer loan forgiveness for states where a public emergency has been declared over lead contamination. 

It would be fully paid for by cutting money from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing program. 

{mosads}Across the Capitol, however, the House WRDA bill did not contain Flint aid due to jurisdictional differences at the committee level. GOP leadership was initially reluctant to add Flint funding to the House measure and said the issue could be addressed in conference. 

After intense, last minute negotiations early last week, leadership reached a deal that ultimately attached an amendment to the House WRDA bill including $170 million for Flint. 

But the House language only authorizes the money and is specific to Flint, unlike the Senate package, which actually appropriates funding and allows communities around the country to benefit from the assistance. 

Lawmakers from both sides of aisle have sounded confident, though, that they can close the $50 million dollar gap between the two chambers’ bills. 

“That bill is making its way through,” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said during a Michigan campaign event earlier this week, according to the Detroit News. “It will get done in December or November, and I’m confident Flint will be addressed there.”

Authorization levels 

The House and Senate WRDA bills, which authorize dozens of water-related infrastructure projects around the country, will be starting off at different numbers when it comes to authorization levels. 

The final Senate legislation is over 600 pages long and includes 30 Army Corps of Engineers Chief’s reports. The version approved out of committee – which is the latest Congressional Budget Office (CBO) score available – is estimated to be at least $10.6 billion. 

Meanwhile, the 150-page House measure authorizes 31 new Army Corps projects, with the CBO estimating the committee-backed version to cost around $9 billion. 

House committee leaders also decided to offset their legislation by deauthorizing about $10 billion worth of projects that are no longer viable. 

But even though the bills are facing an estimated $1.6 billion difference, authorizations tend to be a far easier lift than appropriations in Congress. 

Projects with jurisdictional differences 

The main reason why the House and Senate WRDA bills tend to be far apart is because of jurisdictional differences between the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee and the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee. 

The Senate version authorizes a number of projects that are outside of the House T&I panel’s responsibility, and lawmakers will need to agree on which ones make the final cut. 

The most glaring difference relates to clean drinking water provisions, which would fall under the Energy and Commerce Committee in the House but falls to EPW in the Senate. 

House T&I doesn’t have jurisdiction over the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the piping used to deliver clean drinking water.  

The Senate WRDA bill authorizes $4.9 billion for drinking water and clean water infrastructure over five years. 

The measure would provide additional investments in the nation’s aging drinking water and wastewater infrastructure by modernizing State Revolving Loan Fund programs, reauthorizing funding to control sewer overflows and providing assistance to replace lead service lines. 

It also would assist poor and disadvantaged communities in meeting public health standards, as well as promote innovative technologies to address drought and other critical water resource needs. 

There are also Senate WRDA provisions related to restoration programs, tribal issues and the Bureau of Reclamation, which would fall under the House Natural Resources Committee. 

As a result, all four committees – Senate EPW, House T&I, House Energy and Commerce and House Natural Resources – are expected to be involved in the discussions. 

“The strong, bipartisan vote in the House of Representatives is a clear sign that we can reconcile the House and Senate bills swiftly and smoothly,” said Sens. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman and ranking member on EPW, respectively. 

“We are confident that Congress will send to the president’s desk this year another robust bipartisan infrastructure bill, which will grow the economy, improve public safety, and restore ecosystems while also providing support to communities facing failing water and wastewater infrastructure.”

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