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Lawmakers look to keep WRDA bill above the political fray

February 8, 2024   Politico

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Lawmakers from both parties expect a major water infrastructure bill to move past the finish line this year with broad support, despite ongoing partisan squabbles over federal regulations for wetlands and water permitting issues.


Top Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee are working to craft their respective Water Resources Development Act bills — a biennial effort that directs the Army Corps' efforts on flood control, navigation and ecosystem improvement.


Some observers have wondered quietly whether election-related acrimony and limited legislative days would imperil the legislation. Lawmakers, however, don't think that will be the case — if they can stay away from hot-button fights.


"We’ve always been able to get bipartisan support on reauthorizing [WRDA] every two years,” said Environment and Public Works ranking member Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.).


That's been the case since 2014. Disagreements over spending and what projects to support contributed to a hiatus in approving WRDA bills after 2007.


Capito said she and EPW Chair Tom Carper (D-Del.) are now assessing lawmaker bill and project submissions and “trying to work out any kind of issues.”


As in past years, the legislation would authorize water studies and projects across the nation, likely including improvements to federally owned dams and levees, expansions and dredging at major ports, and environmental restoration in treasured ecosystems like the Everglades.


Democrats also want to advance measures to protect cities and towns from rising seas. This year's bill is a legacy issue for the two leading Democratic lawmakers crafting this year's WRDA — Carper and Rep. Grace Napolitano of California — who are retiring.


Napolitano, ranking member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment, is joining Western lawmakers in campaigning for the bill to address water supply issues in addition to flood-focused projects.


She also wants to see the Army Corps conduct a broad assessment of projects in the U.S., beyond just studying and advancing individual initiatives mandated by lawmakers.


“If we’re able to get the speaker to hold the House open and get votes out, we hope to pass it again on a bipartisan basis,” Napolitano said about a 2024 WRDA.


As for timing, an aide familiar with the bill drafting process, granted anonymity to speak candidly, said that the committees will likely have updates on the bill by April or May.


The proposals submitted for consideration run the gamut from drinking water issues to inland flooding to renourishing coastal beaches experiencing erosion.


“WRDA 2024 will likely support many of the themes we saw in the 2018, 2020 and 2022 WRDAs, and it will have a distinct focus on addressing project needs while the Army Corps of Engineers continues to implement the prior WRDA," said the aide.


Water-related partisan rifts abound. Members on both sides of the aisle are upset with the administration's post-Sackett rule on the Clean Water Act's reach.


Republicans are also eager to advance legislation to dramatically ease the water permitting process for energy and infrastructure projects.


Yet lawmakers overseeing WRDA's development are trying to steer clear of controversy. Republicans, for example, have warned against turning the legislation into a climate bill.


Lawmakers want to keep the Army Corps focused on implementing items from the last WRDA, including measures to address flooding, coastal and riverbank restoration, and other climate resilience measures, said Courtney Taylor, Democratic staff director for the Environment and Public Works Committee.


“I think policy changes are tough, given the environment with the House," Taylor said, referring to the chamber's tight party margins and difficulties passing major bills.


There may be minor changes to address barriers in the construction process and increase flexibility, Capito said. In December, the Senate committee heard from regional water management agencies about the difficulties they face in helping to pay for projects, which often require a nonfederal sponsor.


“I don’t anticipate significant policy deviations,” said Rep. David Rouzer (R-N.C.), chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment. "But if there’s consensus on both sides we need to address something, we will."