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Oberstar Plans Two WRDA Bills in 110th Congress

In an effort to break a long-standing “logjam” over passage of the Water Resources Development Act, House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) plans to move two WRDA bills this session — one addressing projects already approved by the House in earlier sessions and a subsequent one addressing new projects.

The bill was unanimously approved without amendments by a Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee today. While inter-party rancor over earmarks erupted, the squabble is not expected to derail the legislation containing existing projects.

At issue is WRDA, which authorizes federal funds for the Army Corps of Engineers’ water projects nationally. The House and Senate both passed WRDA bills last session, but they failed to reconcile the measures due to bicameral disagreements about reforming the Corps and other issues.

By deferring decisions on new and potentially controversial policies and projects, the decision to split the legislation could help expedite passage of WRDA. Typically, a WRDA bill is passed every two years, but Congress has not been able to pass any since 2000. If it passes this year, the intention would be to return to the every-two-years cycle.

“Three Congresses are represented in this bill,” Oberstar said of the WRDA reauthorization bill that unanimously cleared the Transportation and Infrastructure water resources and environment subcommittee this afternoon. “We’re still doing it because the other body couldn’t get its work done.”

However, Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) blamed the House for the breakdown in conference negotiations in December that ended the bill’s prospects last session.

“We should have [gotten WRDA] through last year,” Lott told CongressNow yesterday. “It sounds to me that what the House has been doing on it has caused the problems.”

Oberstar estimated the bill’s price tag at $15 billion, which he noted included six years’ worth of projects since the last WRDA reauthorization. The Congressional Research Service earlier this year said that the Corps has a backlog of more than 800 authorized projects, with more than 500 not receiving appropriations.

The version that was passed today contains “no new projects,” subcommittee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) told the panel. Additional projects will be dealt with in a subsequent WRDA bill, she said. A committee spokeswoman said that Oberstar supports the idea of starting with “a clean slate” for new projects.

While the bill has broad bipartisan support, partisan squabbling erupted over new financial disclosure requirements implemented by Oberstar that require all committee members to submit a form confirming that neither they nor their families have any financial connection to the projects they are supporting.

GOP Members grew frustrated when Oberstar omitted a number of projects backed by committee Republicans who had not returned the forms in time. “There are Members who have grave concerns their projects have been deleted,” said subcommittee ranking member Richard Baker (R-La.).

Republicans are likely to propose amendments adding the projects — which Baker maintained had all been approved in earlier WRDA bills and are not subject to the exclusion of new projects — during tomorrow’s full committee markup of the bill.

But Oberstar assured committee Republicans — 28 of whom did not return the forms in time — that their projects would be included before the bill reaches the floor. Two Democrats were late in returning the form as well.

The dust-up occurred one day after Transportation and Infrastructure Democrats became upset that committee Republicans had revealed earmark requests from both parties, prompting Republicans to pull hundreds of Democratic earmark requests from the public file after Democrats complained.

Oberstar told Roll Call Tuesday that it was unfair to reveal earmark requests that weren’t included in the final version of the bill.

The chairman today predicted that the bill faces an easier road in the 110th Congress than in earlier Congresses, noting that he has already met with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, to resolve “major issues.”

Boxer’s committee will consider WRDA during a Thursday morning hearing.

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