Senate to vote on WRDA; spending and energy talks continue

By George Cahlink, Marc Heller, Geof Koss | 09/12/2016 07:00 AM EDT

The Senate is set to pass a $9 billion water projects bill this week as bicameral negotiations intensify over year-end spending measures and pending energy overhaul legislation.

The Senate is set to pass a $9 billion water projects bill this week as bicameral negotiations intensify over year-end spending measures and pending energy overhaul legislation.

The Senate is on course to pass a two-year reauthorization of the Water Resources Development Act. A procedural vote is set for this evening that would limit debate.

Talks about the spending legislation, and perhaps an energy bill, are likely to occur today when President Obama hosts congressional leaders from both parties for a meeting on legislative priorities for the remainder of his term.


WRDA’s pathway

The WRDA legislation, S. 2848, would authorize dredging and other projects by the Army Corps of Engineers, and provide $220 million in assistance to Flint, Mich., in response to that city’s crisis with lead in drinking water.

The legislation would also provide for grant programs to replace lead water lines in communities nationwide and to test water for lead in schools.

Several proposed amendments to the bill are still being negotiated. Environment and Public Works Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and ranking member Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) must approve them, according to bipartisan deal.

One of those amendments concerns a dispute between New York and Connecticut over the dumping of dredging material in Long Island Sound, which pits Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) against Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has demanded a vote.

Giving the bill momentum, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce wrote senators late last week urging them to pass it, citing its spending on water and wastewater systems.

The House has yet to vote on its more narrow $5 billion version of WRDA, H.R. 5303, that won the bipartisan backing of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in May.

A House GOP aide said leaders had yet to decide whether the measure would get floor time in the final months of this Congress.

Unlike the Senate WRDA, the House bill does not provide any money for Flint, in part because the T&I Committee lacks the authority to approve money for drinking water projects.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), ranking member on T&I, said he was still hopeful the House could pass its version and have negotiations with the Senate before the end of the year.

He noted the current WRDA authorization does not expire until early 2017, so it would not need to move until the lame-duck session.

DeFazio conceded that some House Republicans are likely to oppose the higher spending in the Senate bill and the Flint aid.

"I am not concerned about levels of spending," said DeFazio, noting the Army Corps faces a $40 billion project backlog and Flint is a "pretty urgent situation."

Spending bill

Efforts to hammer out a year-end spending strategy will continue this week with the new fiscal year set to begin on Oct. 1 and neither party in favor of a politically toxic government shutdown.

Congress has failed to send the president any of the 12 spending bills for fiscal 2017, meaning stopgap legislation is a must to keep agencies running beyond this month.

The Senate will move ahead this week with proposing a continuing resolution to provide funding for the government at current levels through Dec. 9. Under that scenario, Congress would then complete its appropriations work during the lame duck.

The Senate’s move for a short-term CR is seen as an attempt to push back at the House, where some conservatives have favored a stopgap that would run into the next Congress.

Those GOP members have said a long-term CR until March would avoid a massive omnibus, where members could come up with a deal to hike spending and add policy riders.

At a House GOP caucus meeting late last week, members seemed open to moving ahead with a CR into December, provided it would stop short of an omnibus.

One option gaining traction would have lawmakers move packages, known as minibuses, each containing three or four of the spending bills to avoid a massive catchall.

It’s not yet clear how those packages would be structured or how soon they might move to the floor. Some conservatives said they may press for some action on them before a CR as an insurance policy against an omnibus.

"The bottom line is to pass a CR until December to give us a chance to negotiate minibuses," said House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.).

Democrats are not likely to embrace a plan to move spending bills as minibuses. They worry the GOP could move fast on a national security package and then either shortchange or do nothing beyond extending current funding for other domestic bills, including those that fund the Interior Department and U.S. EPA.

An omnibus, Democrats believe, would offer their best chance to get fresh domestic funding for fiscal 2017 because it could leverage GOP support for defense spending.

Whatever stopgap emerges from Congress in the coming days, it seems likely to contain some emergency funding and policy riders.

The administration is likely to renew its push for a $1.1 billion Zika aid package that has been stalled for months over Democrats’ concern about offsets and policy provisions, including waiving some EPA pesticide permitting requirements.

Lawmakers from both parties say Zika aid is a strong candidate to ride on the CR, but they say it will require some deals on riders and spending offsets.

Rep. Bill Flores of Texas, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a conservative group representing most of the GOP House members, said Republicans will press for policy riders on any CR.

He said two priorities will be a provision putting a temporary halt to settling Syrian refugees in the United States and another blocking administration plans to end federal oversight of a nonprofit group that manages internet domain names.

Emergency funding for flooding in Louisiana and the water crisis in Flint is also in play for the CR. Rogers did not rule out including money for the crises but said his goal was to keep whatever bill emerges as "narrow as possible."

Energy talks

Also this week, efforts to reconcile the House and Senate energy bills will continue, as lawmakers race the clock to see if they can find common ground.

Staff spent so much time during the extended summer recess meeting to discuss the bills that House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) apologized during the formal conference committee’s first meeting last week.

"I’m so sorry for what you’ve had to do," he said at the outset.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told reporters after the meeting that, with members back for the rest of the month, she plans to work "as quickly and aggressively as we can."

Noting that both chambers are expected to be gone again in October until after the elections, Murkowski signaled the breakneck pace will continue.

"We’ve already heard complaints that we’re being too aggressive with the schedule, that we’re scheduling too many meetings," she said. "I don’t think that that’s possible because I’m looking at the calendar and I’m trying to be honest with our schedule here."

House and Senate conferees detailed their own priorities for the conference last week, signaling a desire to work toward consensus but also highlighting vast policy divides (Greenwire, Sept. 8).

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) told E&E Daily that efforts will intensify this week. "Now that the opening statements are out of the way, we’ll have member-to-member discussions," he said.