Senate Dems may block water bill over drought language

Senate Dems may block water bill over drought language
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A bipartisan water bill may be in danger in the Senate because of the last-minute inclusion of controversial California drought language.

Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinBipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law Democrats ask for information on specialized Border Patrol teams Democrats face scaled-back agenda after setbacks MORE (D-Ill.), the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, said there’s “probably” enough opposition in his party to block the water legislation from moving forward in the upper chamber.


“What [Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.)] and [Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.)] are trying to do is very controversial within our caucus,” Durbin told reporters Tuesday.

Durbin continued, “I haven't whipped it, but there's pretty strong sentiment opposed to it, and I would say that probably we do" have 41 votes to defeat cloture on the water bill.

The package, which is on track for passage in the House this week, authorizes dozens of water-related infrastructure projects around the country and authorizes emergency aid for the community of Flint, Mich., which has a lead-contaminated water supply.

McCarthy and Feinstein successfully slipped in long-desired language to provide drought relief to central and southern California. It would temporarily relax environmental standards and instruct federal officials to divert more water to farms and other users in the federal water infrastructure in the Golden State.

That water wouldn’t therefore go through the sensitive Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta and could likely harm endangered fish like the Delta smelt.

The provisions would also put more than $500 million toward other drought relief efforts like conservation, desalination and storage.

McCarthy said the drought deal “will bring more water to our communities and supports critical storage projects" while also providing resources for Democratic drought priorities like conservation, efficiency and recycling efforts.

But outgoing Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara Levy BoxerBass raises nearly million since launching LA mayor campaign Harry Reid, political pugilist and longtime Senate majority leader, dies Congress can prevent another Jan. 6 by updating a key elections law MORE (D-Calif.), who helped author a Senate-passed version of the water infrastructure bill, has threatened to use every tool at her disposal to block the legislation if it still contains the drought language.

She worries the proposed move would harm the fishery industry, roll back the Endangered Species Act and change how Congress approves new dams.

Boxer said during a press conference that House Republicans “ruined a beautiful bill” because McCarthy “wanted to flex his muscles.”

“I called you here today to express my strong opposition to an outrageous poison pill,” Boxer said Monday. “This is a devastating maneuver. This last-minute backroom deal is so wrong; it is shocking.”

Boxer, who vowed to fight the language tooth and nail, thinks it will be difficult for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSchumer requests Senate briefing on Ukraine amid Russia tensions Bipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law There is a bipartisan path forward on election and voter protections MORE (R-Ky.) to bring up the water bill in the Senate now because it would take “days and days.”

But not every Democrat shares her position. Feinstein broke with her colleagues, saying she supports the proposal and worries Republicans next year are far more likely to pass "even more harmful drought legislation” if the drought language doesn’t pass this year.

“This bill isn’t perfect but I do believe it will help California and it has bipartisan support including Republicans and Democrats in the House, and that’s why I’m supporting it,” Feinstein said in a statement.

Sen. Jim InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeOvernight Defense & National Security — White House raises new alarm over Russia Biden sparks confusion, cleanup on Russia-Ukraine remarks Republicans say Mayorkas failed to deliver report on evacuated Afghans MORE (R-Okla.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, told reporters that House Republicans have indicated they would not drop the drought language “under any circumstances."

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the administration opposes the California drought proposal, but stopped short of issuing a veto threat.

“We don’t support that measure that’s been put forward but we’ll review the bill in its totality,” he told reporters aboard Air Force One. “Republicans should not use the disagreement in California to break their promise to the people of Flint, Mich.”

Some Democrats have also voiced major concerns over the drought provision but haven’t gone as far as threatening to vote against the underlying bill.

Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who has been leading Flint efforts in the Senate, told reporters he still supports the waterways measure if the Flint aid component is included.

“My focus from day one continues, which is all about Flint,” Peters said. “If the Flint package is in there, that’s going to be the driver for me.”

Another Senate leader on Flint, Sen. Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowMichigan Republican John James 'strongly considering' House run Updated reconciliation text includes electric vehicle tax credit opposed by Manchin Stabenow calls for expansion of school mental health services MORE (D-Mich.), also voiced concern over the drought provisions but said she is still supporting the water package.

Stabenow said the Senate may not get to the bill until the weekend, but thinks “it’s very unlikely that the votes are there.”

“The families of Flint, are being held hostage at the moment, which I think is terrible," she told reporters Tuesday. "Instead of having the full package go together, they divided it up, the authorization in one bill and funding in the other, to try to put some poison pill, very controversial, amendments on the WRDA bill."

Democrats have also taken issue with House GOP leadership for dropping a so-called Buy American provision from the bill, which would have required American steel and iron to be used in certain drinking water projects.

When pressed on whether he thinks the waterways bill is likely to pass the Senate given the mounting Democratic opposition, Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneThere is a bipartisan path forward on election and voter protections Juan Williams: It's Trump vs. McConnell for the GOP's future Biden's year two won't be about bipartisanship  MORE (R-S.D.) shrugged.

"Boxer is trying to blow it up," said Thune, chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

— Timothy Cama, Alex Bolton and Jordan Fabian contributed to this report, which was updated at 3:35 p.m.