- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The House overwhelmingly approved a bipartisan public works bill Wednesday focused on water infrastructure projects, but the parties split over how to handle the $60 billion backlog of Army Corps of Engineers water projects that have already been approved but not yet funded.

Both Republicans and Democrats said the Water Resources Reform and Development Act will eliminate roadblocks and speed up approval of projects. It passed 417-3, with two Republicans and one Democrat voting no.

The bill aims to increase jobs, both in construction projects like expanding harbors, and in international trade and shipping to bring America’s waterways on par with those around the world.

“If we cannot compete, we lose jobs to those who can,” said Rep. Bill Shuster, Pennsylvania Republican, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Democrats also voiced strong support for the bill, and the White House budget office said President Obama supported the House’s passage — though it wanted to see some changes, including the 23 specific infrastructure projects the bill insists be funded.

“The administration supports provisions in the bill to deauthorize projects that no longer meet the nation’s needs or have become too costly,” the statement said. “The administration would like to work with Congress on authorizations of projects and studies that provide high economic and environmental returns to the nation, or address a significant risk to public safety, within the Corps’ three main missions: flood and storm damage reduction; commercial navigation; and aquatic ecosystem restoration.”

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schulz, Florida Democrat, called the legislation “long overdue and much needed.”

The bill speeds up the process of approving infrastructure work by shortening the lengthy review process for environmental projects. It sets a hard deadline and funding limit for feasibility studies and streamlines the reviews. It also allows for reviews to be done concurrently, rather than one after another, which will allow them to be completed quicker.

The chief disagreement on the bill was over a call by Democrats to try to reduce the $60 billion backlog of approved projects. The bill deauthorizes about $12 billion worth of projects.

One amendment to raise that amount to $35 billion in canceled projects was defeated on a voice vote.

Another amendment to postpone any new projects until the backlog is reduced to $20 billion worth of approved projects was defeated on a 235-183 vote.

Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, the Oregon Democrat who sponsored the amendment, said he wanted to complete current projects before the new projects in the bill — which will be subject to new environmental rules. The reason most projects move so slow, he said, isn’t because of lengthy environmental reviews or public participation.

“The problem is that this Congress has failed to appropriate enough money to keep up with the projects that we authorize,” he said.

Mr. Shuster, however, said by speeding up the approval process, his amendment will actually reduce the backlog.

Other amendments approved included an assessment of drought conditions on lakes with levels mandated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, a requirement for the Army secretary to consult with state and minority stakeholders about how they are affected by decisions, and the requirement for the Government Accountability Office to study gaps in current efforts to eradicate invasive species.

The Senate approved a similar water bill in May by a bipartisan 83-14 vote. The difference between the two bills is that the House bill leaves the ability to authorize projects with the Congress, while the Senate bill hands it over to the executive branch.

A conference committee with members from both chambers will meet to work out differences between the two versions.

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