As Congress hurries to its pre- election recess, the list of major bills the House and Senate must pass before leaving may only include one item: legislation to keep federal agencies operating past September. Construction officials also are watching a wide-ranging energy policy bill that has moved into House-Senate conference-committee negotiations but isn’t expected to be wrapped up by Oct. 1. At ENR press time, the Senate was on the verge of passing a new Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). It authorizes 30 Army Corps of Engineers projects, plus Environmental Protection Agency water infrastructure programs, including drinking-water aid for cities such as Flint, Mich. In the House, a narrower bill has cleared committee.
The immediate priority is a new stopgap continuing resolution (CR). To avoid shutting federal agencies, the measure must be enacted by Oct. 1, when fiscal 2017 begins. “The only bill that I see is ‘must pass’ is the CR,” says John Doyle, special counsel with law and lobbying firm Jones Walker LLP.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Sept. 12 said he planned to move a CR to fund agencies through Dec. 9 at current levels. He said it would include money to combat the Zika virus and assist veterans.
Louisiana’s Capitol Hill delegation asked President Obama to request supplemental funds from Congress to help their state recover and rebuild from the August floods. But it was unclear whether that funding would hitch a ride on the CR. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) on Sept. 12 wrote Obama, seeking $2.8 billion for disaster-relief block grants, up $800 million from an earlier request. Edwards also wants $125 million to fully fund the Corps’ Comite River Diversion project and finish studies of the Amite River Basin.
At the energy-bill conference committee’s opening meeting on Sept. 8, some lawmakers were optimistic about producing a compromise that Obama could sign, but others were skeptical. The House-passed version has provisions that have triggered a veto warning, including language to relax some Endangered Species Act requirements to deal with the drought in the West. The Senate and House bills have provisions to expedite reviews of planned energy infrastructure projects.
Industry officials welcome the Senate’s WRDA progress. The version that cleared committee on April 28 had 25 Corps projects. The Congressional Budget Office estimated its 10-year cost at $10.6 billion. The latest version has five more projects, whose federal authorizations total $5 billion.
A House floor vote would be the next step. The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on May 25 approved a $5-billion WRDA that has no EPA water funds. Steve Hall, American Council of Engineering Companies vice president for government affairs, says the Senate’s WRDA action is “creating new impetus on the House to move a bill.”