Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer is optimistic that a deal can be reached soon with the House on a new Water Resources Development Act (WRDA).
In a brief interview on Feb.12, Boxer, the lead Senate WRDA negotiator, said, "We're going very smoothly on WRDA. We're very pleased with the bipartisan spirit that has developed and we're making progress."
Speaking to a small group of reporters after a committee hearing, Boxer added that the two sides are "working through the differences and we've tackled about three big issues and it's going well. It's going well."
She didn't specify what those issues are.
Will negotiators reach a WRDA deal before April, when Boxer aims to bring a highway bill before her committee? "Well, certainly I hope so," she said. "I don't see why we should not."
That's a big change from mid-December, when Boxer said she thought the talks were "moving too slowly."
Boxer and the House's WRDA point man, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), are seeking to reconcile the water resources bills each chamber passed by wide margins last year.
WRDAs authorize funds for Corps of Engineers civil-works projects, in areas such as flood control, port dredging and environmental restoration. They also typically include changes in Corps policies.
The House-Senate talks formally opened on Nov. 20, but for weeks, there had been no evident progress.
Among the differences are the bills' provisions for how to authorize new Corps projects while trying to adhere to congressional bans on earmarked funds.
The two bills also take somewhat varying approaches toward speeding Corps project reviews and increasing Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund spending on dredging projects.
In addition, there is a big gap between the bills' total authorizations: The Senate-passed version's price tag was initially estimated at $12.2 billion; the House-approved measure's cost was pegged at $8.2 billion.
But the Senate bill's estimate is out of date. That measure, which the Senate cleared on May 15, authorizes Corps projects that receive favorable Army Chief of Engineers reports before the bill is signed into law.
As of Jan. 30, Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, the Corps chief, had signed final reports for six new Corps projects since May 15.
If the House and Senate strike a WRDA deal and the compromise measure is enacted, it would be the first WRDA to become law since November 2007.
Although construction, engineering, port and water-transportation officials are hungering for Congress to approve a new WRDA soon, congressional negotiators do not face a statutory deadline or the threat of expiring programs.
Boxer and Shuster no doubt do want to wrap up WRDA shortly so they can focus more completely on drafting a new surface-transportation bill. With the transportation legislation, they do face a hard deadline of Sept. 30, when the current highway-transit measure, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), expires.
Even more critically, the Highway Trust Fund's major component, its highway account, is now projected to slip into a deficit as early as August.