Buried inside the new stopgap spending bill are several goodies, including nearly quadrupling the maximum price of a dam project on the Ohio River that is turning into a boondoggle — up to nearly $3 billion.
The bill also includes $174,000 of taxpayer money for the widow of the late Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg. The death gratuity, which has been paid to widows of other lawmakers in the past, raised hackles since Lautenberg was a multimillionaire, while the government is $16.7 trillion in debt.
But lawmakers did nix one provision that was in an early draft posted online — they canceled authority to build another Coast Guard cutter, as a cost of nearly $600 million.
While leaders announced they’d reached a deal just after noon, the actual bill was still being rewritten late in the afternoon and lawmakers were still arguing over final provisions. They finalized it around 6 p.m. Wednesday.
Included in the measure is money to pay back all of the states that signed agreements funding national parks within their borders during the shutdown — with interest.
The measure also repays all federal employees for the days the government was shutdown, including the hundreds of thousands who were furloughed and didn’t work.
It wasn’t immediately clear who had requested the Ohio River dam project, which is important to both Kentucky and Illinois, the home states of two very powerful Senate leaders: Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, and Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat.
A conservative pressure group accused Mr. McConnell of inserting an earmark in the bill. Indeed, three years ago the dam was listed as an earmark Mr. McConnell requested.
But a spokesman for Mr. McConnell said the project this year was part of a list the White House budget office submits and that is approved by key subcommittee lawmakers. Mr. McConnell is not one of those key lawmakers.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, is one of those lawmakers. In a statement Wednesday he said not raising the authorization level would cost taxpayers $160 million in canceled contracts.
“Senator [Dianne] Feinstein and I, as chairman and ranking member of the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, requested this provision. It has already been approved this year by the House and Senate,” Mr. Alexander said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid gave a different figure for savings of $80 million, but defended the request as well, saying it wasn’t an earmark and actually saves taxpayers money.
The project, approved in a 1988 law for an initial cost of $775 million, is already tremendously over budget. The new bill raises the cost estimate to $2.9 billion.
Backers say the new dam and locks are essential for traffic along the river, and that without them there is a bottleneck. The current locks date back to the first half of the 20th century.
The project and its cost have bedeviled Congress for some time, and the House and Senate each have different water resources projects bills that deal with the project differently — though both approved the project.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in September that the project was supposed to have been completed years ago and “has quadrupled in cost because of management failures for which the [Army] Corps of Engineers has yet to be held accountable.”
“A Post-Dispatch review of thousands of pages of documents and more than two dozen interviews reveal a project plagued by cost overruns, delays and engineering challenges stemming largely from the corps’ stubborn insistence on an innovative construction method that met its match in the unruly Ohio River,” the paper reported.
Also included in the spending bill were instructions to keep the U.S. Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement operating at full levels they were at on Sept. 30.