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Legislative Push to Boost Water Funding Ready to Shift to Senate

With House approval expected today for legislation authorizing higher funding for wastewater infrastructure, the action will soon shift to the Senate, where Congressional insiders say the legislation should be able to pass after years of dispute over a related labor issue.

The full House today is considering the Water Quality Financing Act of 2007 (H.R. 720), which authorizes $14 billion over four years for the state revolving loan fund program that pays for improvements for wastewater treatment facilities. Reauthorization for the program expired in the 1990s, complicating efforts to upgrade sewage treatment facilities — a problem that the Congressional Research Service this week estimated will require $181 billion nationwide to fix.

Republicans opposed the measure during committee markup last month, and the White House has threatened to veto it because of the bill’s inclusion of prevailing wage requirements under the Davis-Bacon Act. But observers following the measure predict that the concerns will not block the bill’s ultimate passage.

The Senate is expected to take up the measure in the next month, said Adam Krantz, spokesman for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, which represents wastewater treatment facilities. Senators are expected to first consider the Water Resources Development Act, which funds Army Corps of Engineers water projects.

Funding for the SRF enjoys broad bipartisan support, but it has become controversial in recent Congresses because the Bush administration generally requests hundreds of millions of dollars less than what Congress approves. During a Senate Environment and Public Works budget hearing this week, both Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) criticized Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen Johnson for the administration’s fiscal 2008 SRF request of $688 million — a nearly $400 million cut over fiscal 2007 levels.

Efforts to bring SRF bills to the floor in the Senate in previous Congresses also were hampered by Davis-Bacon concerns, but observers say the new Democratic majority should prevail when bringing the bill to the floor.

House consideration of the SRF bill, which was sponsored by Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.), comes after House passage of two other water-quality bills this week.

On Thursday, the House passed the Healthy Communities Water Supply Act of 2007 (H.R. 700) by a 368-59 margin. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.), allows $125 million in federal funds for a pilot program to explore alternative water projects.

On Wednesday, the House passed the Water Quality Investment Act of 2007 (H.R. 569), sponsored by Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), which allows $1.7 billion over five years for sewer overflow improvements.

Passage of the bills came despite the opposition of the White House, which criticized both as “unrealistic in the current fiscal environment.”

While the Senate has moved slower to address water-quality issues this session, a spokesman for Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who chairs the Environment and Public Works subcommittee on transportation safety, infrastructure security and water quality, says hearings on water quality are planned “in the near future.”

Lautenberg and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) this week also plan to introduce a Senate companion bill to H.R. 700, the aide said.

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