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Lawmakers ‘cringe’ at Senate’s pork-laden spending deal
Add-ons included dam, flood relief
The debt deal reopening the federal government, hurriedly written Wednesday afternoon, began to rot in the sunlight Thursday as lawmakers distanced themselves from some of the pork projects and other goodies tossed in to sweeten the bill for lawmakers.
Sen. John McCain told CNBC that including the extra spending items "makes me just cringe," while House members said they had nothing to do with writing the bill, putting the blame squarely on senators and in particular the chamber's two floor leaders — the top Democratic senator, Harry Reid, and his Republican counterpart, Mitch McConnell.
"A dam project in Kentucky got extra money, and the state of Colorado got money to help with its flooding," said Rep. Mick Mulvaney, South Carolina Republican. "Those may be worth discussing, but that will never happen now as they were crammed into this 'deal' in order to help it pass."
The money for Colorado is a raise — to $450 million — in the cap on how much federal aid can be sent to rebuild roads after that state's devastating floods this year.
The dam project, on the Ohio River between Illinois and Kentucky, is getting the most attention, however. The bill raises the maximum price authorized for the Olmsted Locks and Dam from $1.7 billion to $2.9 billion.
The project's location immediately left analysts looking at Mr. McConnell, who represents Kentucky, and Sen. Richard J. Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the chamber, who represents Illinois.
Both men denied involvement and pointed to the White House budget office, which included the project in a list of priorities to be dealt with, and to two other senators who head a key subcommittee and vetted the White House list.
Mr. Reid said the troubled Army Corps of Engineers project had to be approved by the end of this year in order to avoid some $80 million in cancellation fees.
Col. Luke Leonard, the Army Corps official overseeing the project, said the Corps is currently operating under a price tag established at $775 million in 1988 and raised for inflation to $1.7 billion now.
But in 2012, Corps officials warned Congress that figure was too low and that they would need extra money, and came up with the $2.9 billion price as their final cost, verified by an outside peer review.
Col. Leonard said the problem is that they are near to hitting the $1.7 billion cap and without an increase, would have had to begin shutting down the project next month. Ramping back up later would end up wasting tens of millions of dollars and leave them behind their 2020 goal for opening the dam.
The payoff, he said, is worth $640 million a year in economic benefits once the dam is operating. In the meantime, they are left hoping the 1920s-era wooden gates keep working.
If key locks and dams fail, Col. Leonard warned, "commerce in the lower Ohio River stops."
"That would be catastrophic," he said.
The Ohio River project manager is San Francisco-based URS Corp., whose political arm had been a big contributor to federal politicians until a few years ago. The URS political action committee gave nearly $300,000 to federal lawmakers in the 2008 election cycle, including $10,000 to Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, and $7,500 to Mr. McConnell, according to records from the Center for Responsive Politics. The company's PAC made no contributions in 2012.
Still, URS has spent well in excess of a half-million dollars lobbying Congress so far this year on energy and water appropriations, among other issues.
Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group, said the project has been poorly run and beset by delays, and shouldn't have been included in the stopgap bill.
"It seems to me that it just didn't rise to that level of importance where it should have been included," Mr. Ellis said. Lawmakers "could've dealt with this another way."
What appeared to irk lawmakers the most was that the project was added to the bill at the last minute — unlike other special items, such as the $174,000 death gratuity payment to the widow of the late Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, which, while controversial, had been in previous versions of the bill.
Indeed, the haphazard bill-writing Wednesday led to a scene with Senate aides poring over the language in a backroom off the Senate chamber Wednesday afternoon, when their bosses were going to be asked to vote less than two hours later.
Early drafts of the bill floated around online, including special projects that senators ended up striking.
One of those would have approved building an additional Coast Guard cutter, at a cost of nearly $600 million.
Another section that would have specifically spent $20.6 million on the Office of Special Counsel was dropped later in the process. That office protects federal employees from whistleblower retaliation, political pressure and other prohibited practices.
A Senate aide said the provision was dropped at the insistence of Sen. Mike Johanns, Nebraska Republican. Mr. Johanns' office didn't respond to messages left seeking comment Thursday evening.
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