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Water projects poised to bridge D.C.’s partisan divide

Representatives Bill Shuster (left), a Republican, and Nick Rahall, a Democrat, hit common ground on water reform.

Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press/file

Representatives Bill Shuster (left), a Republican, and Nick Rahall, a Democrat, hit common ground on water reform.

WASHINGTON — Those occasionally infamous multimillion-dollar water projects that have been derided by good-government types as pork-barrel spending are making a comeback. The reason: Apparently, this is one of the few areas where members of both parties in Congress see eye to eye.

Republicans and Democrats who found little common ground in 2013 are rallying for a bill they hope to pass early next year approving up to $12.5 billion over the next decade for flood diversion in North Dakota, widening a Texas-Louisiana waterway, deepening Georgia’s rapidly growing Port of Savannah, and other projects.

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That’s the Senate bill’s total. The House version would cost about $8.2 billion. Negotiators are confident they can merge the two and pass the package for President Obama’s signature early in 2014.

Unlike a farm policy and food stamp bill also the subject of ongoing House-Senate negotiations, the differences in the two houses’ water project bills are modest and the acrimony is less.

Negotiators say the roughly $4 billion gap between the two bills is more about how they are written than substantive policy or political differences.

‘‘The important thing is that we all care about reform,’’ said Representative Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, a Republican and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Shuster’s Senate counterpart, Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, has said much the same thing.

The last time Congress enacted a water projects bill was 2007, and it took two-thirds majorities in both houses to override President George W. Bush’s veto of it.

Negotiators held their first formal meeting before Thanksgiving on blending two versions. Talks continued until Congress left for its year-end break and resume in January.

Lawmakers have been drawn to the big investment in infrastructure sketched out in both bills — and the promise of jobs that entails. Business groups, led by the US Chamber of Commerce, have lobbied members to support the bills, saying they’ll help keep American businesses competitive.

The bills try to address perceptions of years past that water project legislation was loaded with favors by key lawmakers for their home districts and states. This time, both bills eliminate billions of dollars in duplicative projects. Shuster stressed that this bill contains no such ‘‘earmarks.’’

Those reforms still are not enough for some conservative groups that pressed lawmakers to oppose the bills, saying they are reform in name only and do not do enough to cut spending.

‘‘Even before the predictable increase in authorizations as this bill goes through the process, this legislation would only shave a few billion dollars off the backlog,’’ Heritage Action wrote House members.

Tea Party sympathizers in the House largely brushed off conservative critics, buying into the idea that this water projects bill represents both reform and needed investment. To wavering Republicans, Schuster cited Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, which directs Congress to establish roads and regulate interstate commerce.

For their part, Democrats breezed past environmental groups concerned about language that speeds up the environmental review process.

The House bill passed 417-3 in late October, winning support of everyone from Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi to Tea Party stalwarts like Representative Tim Huelskamp, a Republican of Kansas. The Senate easily passed its version of the bill in May by a vote of 83-14.

Both bills accelerate environmental reviews and allow more money from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to be spent on harbor improvements, but the House version of the bill ramps up spending from the fund more slowly.

The legislation would affect virtually every facet of America’s waterways and authorizes or reauthorizes dozens of projects, though Congress still has to pass separate bills appropriating money for them.

Among them:

 Dredging and widening the Sabine-Neches Waterway, billed as ‘‘America’s Energy Gateway’’ because the nearly 80-mile waterway services many oil and natural gas refineries in Texas and Louisiana.

 $954 million for environmental restoration along the Louisiana coast.

 Expanding the Port of Savannah. Georgia officials have long lobbied for federal backing to improve one of the nation’s fastest growing ports; the bills designate up to $461 million for that purpose.

 Flood diversion for the flood-prone Red River Valley region of North Dakota and parts of Minnesota. The bills authorize spending about $800 million to relieve flooding in a region that includes the cities of Fargo, N.D., and Moorhead, Minn. The region has suffered major floods in four of the past five years.

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