Could this be the year Congress finally passes a Corps of Engineers authorization? The last Water Resources Development Act was signed in 2000, but firms that pursue Corps work hope the long legislative drought will end soon. They got good news April 13 when the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee cleared a new WRDA, filled with big projects. The Congressional Budget Office is expected to calculate the measure’s cost at about $7 billion.

Big Projects in Senate Committee's Bill:  
Federal Funds
Upper Mississippi River/Illinois Waterway
(Iowa, Ill., Mo.)
—Seven new, 1,200-ft locks
—Ecosystem restoration
—Mooring facilities, switchboats, new scheduling system
Indian River Lagoon, Fla.
Ecosystem restoration, water supply and quality, flood control
Morganza, La., to Gulf of Mexico
Storm damage reduction
Picayune Strand, Fla.
Ecosystem restoration
East St. Louis, Ill., and vicinity
Ecosystem restoration, recreation
SOURCE: Senate bill 728  

There’s still a long trek ahead, however. A highway bill, itself much delayed, will precede WRDA on the Senate slate, says sponsor Christopher Bond (R-Mo.). Floor battles may flare over provisions that have incensed environmental groups. David Conrad, National Wildlife Federation senior water resources specialist, says, "This bill would be the most significant congressional involvement in steering and skewing the direction of the Corps’ planning process that we have seen in 30 years."

Before Congress adjourned last year House and Senate lawmakers tried, but failed, to work out differences over a WRDA measure. The Senate proposal at the time included policy provisions more to environmentalists’ liking. But Bond blamed the 2004 outcome in part on those bill sections. He told his colleagues April 13: "If we do what we did last year with policy issues, we will end up where we did last year–that is, with no bill."

This time, Bond made changes in language dealing with such things as Corps project reviews and drew industry support. "It does seem to be a much more reasonable package than what was offered last year," says Marco Giamberardino, director of the Associated General Contractors’ federal and heavy construction division. Susan Monteverde, American Association of Port Authorities’ vice president for government relations, adds, "We think it’s a bill that is workable." But Sens. James Jeffords (I-Vt.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.), probably will push for changes that critics seek.

The bill’s big construction item is a Mississippi and Illinois river package that includes $1.8 billion for seven new 1,200-ft-long locks, $235 million for mooring facilities and other navigation aids and $1.6 billion for environmental work, such as restoring side channels. It has $2.7 billion for 35 large projects elsewhere.

In the House, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is drafting a bill and hopes to have it ready soon.

Transport Grassley, Baucus To Propose Boost in FundingTransport Grassley, Baucus To Propose Boost in Funding
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Montana’s Max Baucus, the panel’s top Democrat, will seek a funding hike of unspecified size when a multi-year transportation bill, now at $284 billion, hits the Senate floor. Grassley says a main item in the plan, announced April 19, aims to combat fuel-tax fraud.

"Any increases will be paid for," Baucus says. " We will not increase the deficit." Grassley asked the Bush administration to focus on deficit reduction, not the bill’s total. "The obsession with a top line spending number, viewed outside of a deficit reduction context, will lead to a repeat of last fall’s conference gridlock," he says. To get the bill to the floor, Finance cleared a tax title in line with the $284-billion level the White House desires.

Estate Tax Debate Shifts to Senate
Despite House passage April 13 of a bill to make repeal of the inheritance tax permanent, the measure is not likely to go to President Bush for his signature any time soon. In 2001, Congress approved legislation that phased out estate taxes by 2010. If the law is not made permanent, the inheritance levy in 2011 will return to its pre-2001 level, when estates worth more than $675,000 were taxed at a 55% rate. Since 2001, the House has voted for permanent repeal four times, but the legislation has died in the Senate. With the 2011 deadline nearing, repeal advocates, who include construction groups, hope a bill can clear the Senate this time. The optimism hinges on the GOP�s larger majority this year. Republicans and Democrats also have signaled a willingness to consider a compromise: partial repeal.

Insurance: Shelby Awaits Report on Terrorism Coverage
Senate banking committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) says he won�t decide whether to move on a bill to extend the federal insurance �backstop� for terrorism-related claims until the Treasury Dept. reports on the issue. The backstop, set up by the 2002 Terrorism Risk Insurance Act, lapses Dec. 31. Treasury�s report is due June 30. Insurers want to see the 2002 law�s coverage program extended through 2007.

Compiled by Tom Ichniowski and Sherie Winston