Photo Courtesy of U.S. Senate Photo Studio
Boxer (center) is the lead Senate WRDA negotiator; Shuster (left) heads the House's negotiations.

Negotiations to work out a new Water Resources Development Act have formally begun, with an upbeat first meeting of a House-Senate conference committee on Nov. 20. Now, the work moves behind the scenes as lawmakers and aides try to resolve differences between the bills each chamber passed by wide margins earlier this year. At stake are $8 billion or more in Corps of Engineers project authorizations and likely revisions in Corps policies.

Lead negotiators are optimistic that they can strike a deal and move a compromise WRDA through their chambers in December. The schedule is tight: The House and Senate will not return from Thanksgiving-Hanukkah breaks until early December. Then, few legislative days remain before the Christmas recess.

The top Senate negotiator, Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), told fellow conferees, "I just think we're going to make it happen. I just have a feeling." The House team's leader, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), said the talks "got off to a very, very strong start." He added, "Although we have differences on some of these issues, I'm confident that we're going to be able to produce a product to take back to our respective bodies and then pass it overwhelmingly and send it to the president."

Boxer said staffers will meet "continually" over the current recess and that she, Shuster and others will keep their teams informed about any progress. "So even though we won't be sitting around the table, we will have a virtual table because we'll all be involved," she added. Amy Larson, National Waterways Conference president, says, "We are very encouraged that the conference committee is really interested in finalizing this, and we're confident that they can do so by mid-December."

The bills have common ground, such as similar language that advocates say will "streamline" project reviews. But Scott Slesinger, Natural Resources Defense Council legislative director, slams the sections as "steamrolling provisions" and "another attempt to weaken environmental reviews."

Still, many differences need to be resolved, including cost. The Senate's bill is estimated at $12.2 billion, $4 billion above the House's. Each has a different mechanism to authorize projects and comply with earmark bans. Both use favorable Army Chief of Engineers project reports as key authorization benchmarks. Boxer says many lawmakers are "upset" the chief's reports for some projects were issued after the Senate and House passed their bills. Those legislators worry the final bill won't cover such projects. But she told reporters that conferees will be looking for a way to deal with the issue.