Federal lawmakers work on water resources bill

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WASHINGTON -- Federal lawmakers Wednesday began reconciling their differences over sweeping legislation to provide up to $12.5 billion to repair the nation's water infrastructure.

Western Pennsylvania industries that move goods by barge have long been awaiting passage of the legislation, which includes a measure allowing the Army Corps of Engineers to resume work on the lower Monongahela River's crumbling locks and dams.

Both legislative chambers overwhelmingly passed funding legislation earlier this year, but their bills differ. The Senate version would have the government pay the full cost of completing the Lower Mon project, while the House version provides three-quarters of the necessary funding and calls for the rest to come from a diesel tax that barge operators pay to the Water Resources Trust Fund.

Members including Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., say that trust fund is already being stretched. Its balance is about $50 million now, down from about $400 million a decade ago, Ms. Capito said Wednesday during the first meeting of a bicameral conference committee charged with reconciling the two versions of the funding measure.

"I am confident that we can work together to resolve our differences while maintaining strong support in both the House and Senate," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., whom conferees elected chairwoman Wednesday.

"I believe that we can all come together and show the American people that Congress can pass a bill that is good for jobs, good for local communities, and good for the economy."

The Water Resources Development Act funds water infrastructure projects that reduce flood damage, protect shorelines, provide disaster response, keep dams safe, dredge rivers, improve navigation and more.

There is widespread agreement that those projects should be funded, but the House and Senate differ on how to fund them and how to keep from opening the floodgates to the kinds of pork barrel projects that the 2010 earmark ban was meant to eliminate.

The last time a water resources bill was passed was in 2007.

The House bill would empower the Army Corps of Engineers to recommend which projects to fund. Projects not recommended cannot be funded.

Some lawmakers said they are concerned about that provision, saying it delegates a power and responsibility traditionally reserved for Congress.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall II of West Virginia, ranking Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, said it's better than the alternative, which would be ceding power to the White House.

Before earmarks were outlawed, project authorization was typically driven by requests from members of Congress.

Conference committee members are optimistic they will reach a compromise.

"We all care about reform," said Bill Shuster, R-Blair, chairman of the House Transportation Committee and lead author of the House bill. "There are areas in our bills where we differ, [but] I am confident at the end of the day we can resolve our differences and achieve a successful conference report."

The next step is for conferees to privately hash out an agreement, which they will present in a conference report that will then head to the floor of both chambers for separate votes. The compromise must past both chambers and be signed by the president to become law.

Washington bureau chief Tracie Mauriello: tmauriello@post-gazette.com, 1-703-996-7272 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.

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