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Gift to GOP: $140M for Water Projects

Republican Senators are about to get a gift — $140 million worth of district projects — courtesy of Montana Democratic Sen. Max Baucus.

The projects will be added to the Water Resources Development Act reauthorization bill in coming weeks, in order to offset a $140 million water project in Montana that Baucus — chairman of the Environment and Public Works subcommittee on transportation and infrastructure, which has jurisdiction over WRDA — had demanded.

EPW Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), at a markup March 29, said the only way to guarantee the WRDA bill moves speedily to the floor is to “oppose all amendments” and keep the bill “at the same level of funding as last year.” The Senate passed a $13 billion WRDA bill last year but was unable to reach agreement with the House on a final bill.

But keeping the bottom line the same has not meant that last year’s legislation is inviolable. Boxer’s markup vehicle had a new, $140 million project inserted at Baucus’ request to repair an 85-year-old system that delivers water to towns along Montana’s northern border.

Republicans objected, but Boxer explained that she had made an agreement with Sens. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), the ranking members of the committee and subcommittee respectively, to allow Baucus’ measure and provide a way for Republican project to be “treated equally.”

According to Isakson, the deal essentially means that Republicans on the committee now have $140 million to divide among the projects of their choosing.

“The agreement was that if they were going to put that treatment in [for Baucus], there had to be equitable treatment for our side,” Isakson told Roll Call last week. “I did not feel that it was appropriate for me to say where the money would go without all the members of our committee participating.” So Isakson said Democrats agreed to “let our side get together and determine what they ended up going to.”

Several Republicans floated amendments at the markup — Sen. George Voinovich (Ohio) wants to add $13.5 million to a dam project in Girard, Ohio; Sen. Larry Craig (Idaho) is seeking to expand rural water assistance in his state from $25 million to $50 million; and Sen. John Warner (Va.) requested an additional $5 million in federal money to expand a Norfolk-area site to dump soils dredged from Virginia harbors — but the amendments were tabled with the promise that they would be discussed as part of the package deal.

Isakson said that in order to keep the bill within the spending targets set by last year’s measure, other projects in the bill would be cut or amended to make up for the $280 million in additions.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee also passed a WRDA reauthorization bill in March, and projects were amended and expanded to meet member requests. Congress has not passed a WRDA reauthorization bill since 2000, and many projects subsequently proposed for reauthorization are no longer relevant or already have been completed.

The difference is that on the House side, Member requests for these projects will be public.

In accordance with new House rules, the final report on the WRDA bill will include the name of the Member who requested each project. Republicans on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee also have made their own earmark request letters available for public scrutiny.

The Senate has approved legislation that would require Members to declare their earmarks and declare that they have no direct financial interest in the earmarks. But the House has not acted on similar legislation, so the new rules are not in effect in the Senate. Environment and Public Works Committee staff said at this point there is not any plan to require disclosure of the earmark request in the WRDA bill.

Isakson said he thinks the sponsors ought to be disclosed.

“I think that’s what we have voted on the floor of the Senate,” he said. “My intent is to follow the spirit of what happened on the floor. I think that would certainly be the thing to do.”

But staff said that the two sides have agreed not to disclose earmarks on this bill because the new rules are not yet in place.

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