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House poised to pass bipartisan water bill

Henry c. Jackson, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Uniting against some of the same conservative groups that encouraged the government shutdown, Republicans and Democrats united Wednesday behind an $8.2 billion House bill mapping dams, harbor, river navigation and other water projects for the coming decade.

Members of both parties praised the measure just a week after Congress voted to end a bitterly partisan standoff that shuttered much of the federal government for 16 days and threatened a first-ever default on its debt.

House passage seemed assured. Many conservative Republicans appeared ready to defy conservative groups like FreedomWorks, Taxpayers for Common Sense and Heritage Action for America that opposed the water projects bill after whipping up sentiment for the government shutdown as a tactic for rolling back President Barack Obama's health care law.

That strategy ultimately failed despite the Obama administration's disastrous rollout this month of computerized exchanges for people to buy medical insurance.

Although the legislation labeled the Water Resources Reform and Development Act "contains reform in the title, it fails to deliver on the promise," the three conservative groups plus seven others said in a letter to lawmakers. The groups said the bill did not do enough to cut spending and block unneeded projects.

The bill is Congress' first water projects authorization since 2007.

"This bill is about strengthening our infrastructure so we can remain competitive. It's about economic growth, it's about trade, it's about jobs," said Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which wrote the measure.

Added Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., "Repairing our nation's aging infrastructure, including our water infrastructure, is the best jobs creator out there."

Shuster's committee had no firm estimate on how many jobs would be created nationally by the legislation.

Wednesday's debate underscored lawmakers' sensitivity to public opinion polls showing voters' disdain for Congress rising to new heights.

"We have today the opportunity to demonstrate that Congress can work toward the best interest of our country," said Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., a conservative who opposed last week's bill reopening the government and averting default.

Business groups led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers strongly backed the water bill. The chamber distributed state-by-state fact sheets and said it would consider the measure a "key vote" when it determines which lawmakers to support in next year's election.

The bill's water projects and its changes to some of the Army Corps of Engineers procedures attracted support from many conservatives who supported the standoff last week.

"Transportation is one of the few things Congress should actually spend money on," said Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., a conservative elected in the tea party wave of 2010.

"Make no mistake, this is a jobs bill," said Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla.

The legislation would allow work to proceed on 23 shipping channel, flood management and other water projects that the Corps of Engineers has started studying. Actual money for the work would have to be provided in future legislation.

It also would shelve at least $12 billion of old, inactive projects approved in the last water resources bill while accelerating environmental reviews, which Republicans said had slowed many projects almost to a halt.

Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, said the bill would allow the deepening of Texas' Sabine-Neches Waterway, which he said he and his predecessors in Congress have been working on for 16 years.

"Since that time, all four of my kids have finished high school, graduated from college, gotten married and given me 10 grandkids. The United States has fought two major wars. ... Something wrong with this picture," Poe said.

Some Democrats and environmental groups objected to the speedier reviews, saying they would weaken environmental protections. Many Democrats said they would back the bill anyway and try to change the language when House and Senate bargainers try to put a compromise version together later. The Senate passed its version of the water bill in May with a broad, bipartisan vote.

"The real problem is lack of money, not environmental reviews," said Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J.

The authors of the House bill said it contains no earmarks — projects inserted by lawmakers for home districts — though it includes some projects the Obama administration considers low priority. The administration supported the bill despite objections to some of the new projects it said have only a "marginal return on investment."


Associated Press writer Alan Fram contributed to this report.

Follow reporter Henry C. Jackson: www.twitter.com/hjacksonap