Office of Rep. James Oberstar
Oberstar, Boxer hope for floor votes on WRDA package by August recess

House and Senate conferees have reached a deal on a long–delayed bill that would authorize about $21 billion for hundreds of Army Corps of Engineers water projects and require more review by outside experts of work the Corps plans to do. Key lawmakers announced July 27 they had reached an agreement on major elements of a new Water Resources Development Act.

The package represents a melding of a $14.9–billion WRDA bill that the House approved in April and a $13.9–billion measure that the Senate passed in May. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D–Minn.), who also chairs the House–Senate WRDA conference committee, told reporters that the reason the final version's price tag exceeds the House–passed total is that it also includes projects from the Senate bill.

The deal isn't completely wrapped up. But lawmakers hope to have unfinished items settled and final language for the joint "conference report" written in a matter of days. They're seeking to gain floor approval in both chambers for the measure by Aug. 3, when a month–long congressional recess begins.

Office of Sen. Barbara Boxer
Oberstar, Boxer hope for floor votes on WRDA package by August recess

Dealing with another piece of unfinished business, lawmakers attached to the water resources measure a bill to make "technical corrections" to 2005's SAFETEA–LU transportation statute.

The lead Senate conferee, Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D–Calif.) said, "I believe we have a very strong, responsive WRDA that will greatly improve the way the Corps does its business, that will meet the critical health and safety and economic needs of our nation." If enacted, it would be the first WRDA measure signed into law since December 2000.

Oberstar says the measure deals with "six and a half years of stored–up projects and policy issues." He says the draft House–Senate WRDA package has provisions for 940 Corps projects or studies, including authorizations for about 400 new projects. By comparison, Oberstar says there were 900 project provisions in the WRDA that passed the House last year and 682 in the version that the chamber approved earlier this year.

The White House objected to WRDA measures that passed the House and Senate this year, partly because of their cost. Rep. John Mica (Fla.), the transportation panel's top Republican, says that the new bill's price tag "is going to give the White House heartburn," but noted that the money it provides is in the form of authorizations, not mandatory funding. He said he would work with administration officials to try to see the bill through.

The bill authorizes a set of new, 1,200–foot–long locks for the upper Mississippi River and Illinois Waterways and continues work on restoring Florida's Everglades and Louisiana's coastal wetlands. The bill also directs the shutdown of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, a waterway that critics have charged funneled Hurricane Katrina's storm surge to the New Orleans area. Others have disagreed about "Mr. GO's" role in the damage caused by Katrina.

Besides the new WRDA's long list of projects, it also includes compromise language mandating outside reviews of major Corps projects, something that environmental groups and other critics have been seeking for years.

According to Oberstar, the final bill requires independent reviews of projects when any of three conditions are met: the project costs more than $45 million; a governor of an affected state requests a review; or the Army's Chief of Engineers determines a project is "controversial." The Corps Chief then would ask the National Academy of Sciences to establish a panel of specialists to study the project.

The deal isn't complete. Boxer notes, "It ain't over 'til it's over." Remaining steps include approval by the Senate banking and commerce committees of transit and safety provisions of the SAFETEA–LU corrections bill.

If those and other open items are settled, Oberstar says a final conference report on the bill would be filed on July 30 and a House floor vote could come as early as Aug. 1. Boxer says that to speed action in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D–Nev.) has taken a procedural step seeking to limit debate on the WRDA package.