As a standing-room crowd looked on, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved a new Water Resources Development Act, or WRDA, to authorize Corps of Engineers water-resource projects and make policy changes aimed at accelerating Corps project reviews.

The panel’s voice-vote approval on Sept. 19 was no surprise, because the bill had strong bipartisan support, a rare event on Capitol Hill these days.

If enacted, it would it would be the first WRDA to become law in nearly six years.

After the two-hour-plus session, Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), the bill’s author, told reporters he expected the measure to come to the House floor for a vote around the week of Oct. 7.

Based on the “T&I” committee results, the measure should sail through the full House by a wide margin.

In the meantime, Shuster and other committee leaders are awaiting a Congressional Budget Office cost estimate for the bill.

Shuster says the measure would authorize about $10 billion in new or modified Corps projects, with those costs more than offset by $12 billion in savings from deauthorizing inactive pre-2007 projects. House deficit hawks would like a bill that doesn't increase federal spending.

But CBO will provide the official budget “score” for the bill, and Shuster hopes the budget analysts’ arithmetic agrees with his.  

If Shuster’s bill clears the CBO hurdle and the House floor, the next big challenge will be to reconcile it with the WRDA the Senate approved in May. Shuster notes the two bills have similarities—both seek to speed up Corps project approvals, for example.

But the proposals also differ in how they deal with project authorizations, a tricky task in a no-earmark environment on Capitol Hill.

The Senate measure authorizes projects for which the Army Chief of Engineers has submitted a positive report to Congress. Shuster says the House committee version gives Congress more say in project approvals than the Senate bill does.

As the T&I committee voting session proceeded, lawmakers approved only a couple of amendments to the version Shuster introduced earlier this month. The panel agreed to a package of items which the chairman and the committee’s top Democrat, Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), negotiated with various committee members.

Also approved was a Shuster amendment calling on the Army to urge states to work out water-use agreements. That rider is aimed at the long-running dispute among Georgia, Alabama and Florida about water use from Lake Lanier in Georgia.

Other committee members did try to add further amendments, but they knew Shuster, and sometimes Rahall, didn't want to alter the legislative package they had assembled.

For example, as the markup session neared its end, committee member Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), knew his amendment calling for wide-ranging Mississippi River management plan wouldn’t pass. After summarizing the proposal, Cohen said, “Reluctantly, I will withdraw the amendment because I know that the chairman would prefer that to be the way it goes.”

Then, Cohen asked his committee colleagues to raise the little bottles of water at their desks and toast Shuster “for his great work on the water bill.”

Lawmakers did offer a toast, to a round of laughter. Shuster said thanks and quipped, “Cohen, you’re good.” Maybe a Mississippi management plan provision isn’t dead yet.