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Senate clears water bill with Flint aid, drought relief

Senate clears water bill with Flint aid, drought relief

After a weeklong battle over last-minute policy riders, the Senate passed a major water bill in the early morning hours Saturday that includes emergency aid for Flint, Mich., and drought relief for California.

The nearly $12 billion measure, which authorizes 30 new infrastructure projects around the country, now heads to the president’s desk.

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Senators backed the legislation in a 78-21 vote to boost U.S. ports, damns and waterways. It 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 was needed so that direct funding for the crisis, contained in a stopgap spending bill, can actually be spent.

The package faced a number of hurdles throughout the week, with retiring Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara Levy BoxerThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden, Harris launch Trump offensive in first joint appearance Bottom line Polls show big bounce to Biden ahead of Super Tuesday MORE (D-Calif.) blocking swift consideration of the measure over the inclusion of controversial California drought language.

“It breaks my heart,” Boxer said during a lengthy and impassioned floor speech on Friday. “Here I am, standing up, making a big fuss over my own bill, saying vote no. It’s really painful for me to have to filibuster my own bill.”

Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) 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.

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

Boxer, ranking member on the Environment and Public Works Committee, said the move will undermine the Endangered Species Act, permanently harm fisheries and change the way Congress approves dams.

Her unanimous consent request to offer an amendment that would strip the drought provision was swiftly rejected Friday afternoon.

“What right does anybody have to do that, in the middle of the night, before Christmas, days before [current government funding] expires?” Boxer said. “Kevin McCarthy ... has launched another water wars battle. It’s ugly and it’s wrong.”

The underlying waterways bill, passed by the House on Thursday, 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.

Another issue that came under fire was language to 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 said Congress could step in if the states don’t reach an agreement.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said the absence of the provision will be “very detrimental to Alabama and Florida” and said Sens. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsBiden fact checks Trump on 545 families separated at border, calls policy 'criminal' Harris walks fine line on Barrett as election nears The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump's erratic tweets upend stimulus talks; COVID-19 spreads in White House MORE (R-Ala.), Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate GOP to drop documentary series days before election hitting China, Democrats over coronavirus Bipartisan group of senators call on Trump to sanction Russia over Navalny poisoning Trump's new interest in water resources — why now? MORE (R-Fla.) and Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonSenate Democrats want to avoid Kavanaugh 2.0 Democrats sound alarm on possible election chaos Trump, facing trouble in Florida, goes all in MORE (D-Fla.) share his strong opposition.

Democrats 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.

Instead, the final water bill included language that is the same one-year extension already included in annual appropriations bills, which supporters of the provision say is a disingenuous way to address the issue.