Two powerful Senate Democrats have been quietly pressing Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) to scrap controversial streamlining language in her Water Resources Development Act, which is expected to be taken up by the chamber soon.
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) wrote to the Environment and Public Works Committee chairwoman last week urging her to "strike or revise" the provision, which has been decried by green groups but which lawmakers have been hesitant to speak out against because of the powerful players lined up in support of the bill.
"Time and time again, outside agency reviews of Army Corps of Engineers projects have identified significant economic, public safety, and environmental problems," Wyden and Rockefeller wrote in a closely held letter obtained by E&E Daily.
At issue is language in S. 601 aimed at speeding up the often glacial pace of Army Corps projects by imposing fines on agencies if they fail to meet deadlines for decisions under the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and other laws.
The provision "creates unacceptable and unnecessary financial burdens on the resource agencies in the midst of already severe budget cuts," the pair wrote to Boxer, who co-sponsored the bill with EPW Committee ranking member David Vitter (R-La.). "The imposition of fines represents a substantial departure from the important deference provided by Congress to federal agencies with natural resource expertise and will have a severe chilling effect on a resource agency's ability to meaningfully evaluate and raise important concerns and objections to federal water projects."
Environmental groups have been vociferously opposed to the language since it first appeared in the bill two business days before markup, but so far, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) is the only lawmaker to have publicly voiced opposition to the provisions.
Boxer has staunchly defended the language, pointing to her environmental record and saying that those who oppose the provisions "don't understand how [they] work."
"I would put my environmental record, well, probably above or equal to the best in the Senate," Boxer said during the March 20 markup in which the bill was unanimously approved (Greenwire, March 20). "I would never agree to anything that took away someone's right to delay a project for a good reason. But what we said was, there is sometimes absolutely no reason whatsoever, and in that case, we have to speak with a penalty, because if you just say do it, then they're not going to do it."
Green groups, which had hoped to win reforms to the corps' water management policies in the bill, instead have found themselves on the defensive. They are particularly worried over the fact that the streamlining provisions came so early in the process.
"I think that that's probably the most significant concern at this point," said Rachel Dawson, a lobbyist for the National Wildlife Federation. "Whatever comes out on the Senate floor is likely our high water mark. The House is definitely considering its own version of streamlining. It's probably not going to get better."
Wyden and Rockefeller's offices declined to comment on whether they have met with Boxer about the provisions and whether they may propose amendments when the bill comes to the floor.
The pressure from Wyden and Rockefeller adds to the obstacles piling up before the Senate WRDA bill, which, if passed, would be the first in six years.
Four top Senate appropriators recently came out in opposition to provisions in the bill related to harbor maintenance funding. Following a letter from the four "cardinals" laying out concerns about that language, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) scrapped his original plans to bring the WRDA bill to the floor after gun control legislation (E&E Daily, April 19).
Boxer said this week that the bill is slated to be first up when Congress returns from recess early next month.
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