Water Bill Brings Bipartisanship Back in Fashion (Updated)

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster, left, and ranking member Nick J. Rahall II brought their bipartisan water resources bill to the floor Wednesday. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)
House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster, left, and ranking member Nick J. Rahall II brought their bipartisan water resources bill to the floor Wednesday. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted October 23, 2013 at 5:41pm

Updated 6:25 p.m | House lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were in a rare, chummy mood Wednesday as they debated a water resources bill that Republicans and Democrats just seem to love.

“This is how we ought to work,” said Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md. “This is how the Congress ought to work with one another, all 435 of us. I don’t mean that 435 are going to vote for the bill, but we have worked together on this bill.”

Hoyer said he hoped other Republicans and Democrats would collaborate like Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., and the panel’s ranking Democrat, Nick J. Rahall II of West Virginia did on the Water Resources Reform and Development Act.

“I hope we can tap into this spirit of cooperation by scheduling consideration of a comprehensive immigration reform legislation which, like this bill, has support from both sides of the aisle — from business, from labor, from religious groups and from leading nonprofits,” Hoyer said. “That is a challenge I think that we can meet this year.”

Of course, transferring the spirit of bipartisanship from infrastructure legislation, which is typically an issue with support on both sides of the aisle, to a contentious issue like immigration is a lofty goal.

But the water resources bill, it seems, has momentarily brought Republicans and Democrats together.

“We worked in a bipartisan way since day one, developing this bill from members, stakeholders, through listening sessions, roundtables and hearings,” Shuster said.

Rahall offered, “I hope this will be a signal of how this committee will bring future pieces of legislation to the floor. And I just hope that it will be a signal to the entire Congress how we should be working closer together in a bipartisan fashion.”

While no party seems entirely satisfied with the bill — a true hallmark of bipartisanship — both seem sufficiently receptive. A number of trade groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, have come out in favor of the bill, and the White House on Wednesday issued a supportive Statement of Administration Policy.

“The administration supports investing in the nation’s water resources to build the foundation for long-term economic growth, to address significant risks to public safety, and to protect and restore our environment,” the White House said.

While the White House expressed a number of concerns with the bill — including provisions that would authorize new projects the president never recommended and overhaul regulatory policies that the administration said could actually slow project approval — the bill is a likely win for any politician willing to vote “yes” — even with 10 conservative groups sending a letter to House lawmakers Tuesday urging them to oppose the bill.

The conservative groups took issue with a host of issues, charging that the bill would protect a $60 billion to $80 billion project backlog, force increased spending through the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund and increase the authorization for the Olmsted Lock and Dam project, derisively dubbed the “Kentucky Kickback.”

That will likely temper support among conservatives for the bill. But GOP leadership seemed largely unconcerned by that prospect. They seem to know Democrats will overwhelmingly support the bill; it’s been a Republican-Democrat measure from the very beginning.

And that’s what seems to be giving Democrats so much hope for a shift away from the partisan legislative processes that have been typical of recent legislation, where Republicans draft the legislation without Democratic input and pass it without Democratic votes.

Even on recent votes where Republicans relied on Democrats, like the continuing resolution and debt ceiling bill, the vote was subject to a highly partisan rhetoric. In contrast, the water bill brought out a wonkier side of Congress, where the testiest exchange was over ocean planning and aquaculture policies.

But even as Republicans and Democrats on the House floor thanked each other for their comments — and seemed to actually mean it — the partisan fault lines characteristic of Congress were still trembling Wednesday.

Republican leaders spent much of the day attacking the HealthCare.gov rollout, and bombastic Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., refused to apologize Wednesday for sending out a campaign email that compared a GOP faction to Ku Klux Klan.

Still, bipartisanship was the overwhelming tone in Congress Wednesday. On the water bill, Democrats didn’t even use their allotted motion to recommit, typically used to expose Republicans to a difficult vote, and the bill passed 417-3 with all but two Republicans (Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and Walter B. Jones, R-N.C.) joining all but one Democrat (Collin C. Peterson, D-Minn.) in support of the legislation.