House passes water bill with Flint aid, drought relief

In one of the House’s last acts of the year, the chamber easily passed a major water bill on Thursday that includes emergency aid for Flint, Mich., and boosts U.S. ports, dams and waterways.

The final package now heads over to the Senate, where it may face a tougher time because of the last-minute inclusion of controversial California drought language.

{mosads}House lawmakers backed the nearly $12 billion measure, which authorizes 30 new infrastructure projects around the country, in a 360-61 vote.

“It could be one of the final achievements of this Congress,” Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said during House floor debate. “We have the opportunity to deliver one more win for America.”

The legislation authorizes $170 million in aid for the drinking water crisis in Flint, where water from the Flint River corroded the pipes and contaminated the city’s water supply with lead. The authorization is needed so that direct funding for the crisis, contained in a stopgap spending bill, can actually be spent.

“The water flowing through the pipes has poisoned the city,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), who represents Flint. “This bill is far from perfect. But I’ve been fighting for my hometown, and told to wait and wait and wait, and the people of my community should wait no longer.”

The measure also deepens nationally significant ports, addresses flood risk management, helps disadvantaged communities provide safe drinking water and authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to approve state permitting programs for coal ash.

“This bill has something for everyone,” said Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.).

But the inclusion of controversial California drought language and a provision related to a long-running, regional water dispute has come under fire from both sides of aisle.

“Unfortunately, I rise in opposition,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), ranking member on the Transportation Committee. “At one point I wholeheartedly supported this bill.”

DeFazio ripped the final package for a number of reasons, including the “hugely controversial” drought language.

“It doesn’t just affect California,” he said. “If they start diverting more water from the Delta, it’s likely our fisheries will be shut down in Oregon because of this misplaced provision, which hasn’t had any congressional review.”

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) helped slip in 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 Golden State.

“America is not some third-world country. We are a wealthy nation and we will not let any American go without water,” McCarthy said. “In my state of California, we are enduring the worst drought in over a century.”

Retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), ranking member on the Environment and Public Works Committee, has threatened to use every tool at her disposal to block the water legislation if it still contains the drought language.

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

The water infrastructure bill also contains contentious language that would strip a provision from a previous Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) that says the governors of Alabama, Florida and Georgia should work together to resolve a decades-long water dispute. That provision says Congress can step in if the states don’t reach an agreement.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Banking Committee, said he “absolutely” won’t support the water bill without the provision and added that Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) share his strong opposition.

“It’s very detrimental to Alabama and Florida,” Shelby told reporters. “The governors have started negotiating a little bit. We’ve always thought … they could resolve this issue.”

Democrats have also slammed House GOP leadership for stripping a so-called “Buy America” provision from the measure, which would have required certain drinking water projects to use American iron and steel products.

The House Rules Committee rejected a Democratic effort to reattach the amendment, instead approving debate guidelines on Wednesday that didn’t allow for any amendments to the final package.

Committee GOP leaders remain confident that the mounting Democratic and Republican opposition won’t be enough to derail the package in the Senate, although they acknowledge that critics have the power to slow down work and push final passage into the weekend.

“If they insist on filing cloture, then it’s going to be Saturday, which is stupid because it’s going to pass,” Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the EPW Committee, told reporters Wednesday.

Tags Barbara Boxer Bill Nelson Jeff Sessions Jim Inhofe Marco Rubio

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video