Bush Threatens to Veto $20 billion Water Projects Bill

President Bush will veto a $20 billion water projects bill unless lawmakers remove the billions added for new plants and new costs shifted onto the federal government, the White House said Wednesday.

“Indeed, it seems a $14 billion Senate bill went into a conference with the House’s $15 billion bill and somehow a bill emerged costing approximately $20 billion,” complained Rob Portman, the White House budget director, and John Paul Woodley Jr., the Army’s assistant secretary of civil works.

The veto threat came hours before the House took up the bill, loaded with Army Corps of Engineers environmental projects and drinking water and wastewater treatment plants included by Senate and House negotiators.

“It is important that we get our water policy back on track,” said Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., as the House started debating the bill Wednesday night. Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., call it a “very conservative” and responsible bill fiscally. The Senate also plans to act on the bill and get it to the president’s desk before Congress begins a one-month August vacation.

This year’s bill includes some $3.5 billion for Katrina-damaged Louisiana, plus more than $2 billion for projects in California and $2 billion for Florida, mostly for restoring the Everglades. Another $1.95 billion is included for seven new locks on the upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers and $1.7 billion for repairing the region’s ecology.

But because the bill’s authorization now “significantly exceeds the cost of either the House or Senate bill and contains other unacceptable provisions … the president will veto the bill,” Portman and Woodley wrote to four Senate and House members whose committees oversaw the legislation.

That has set up a showdown between Bush and lawmakers in both parties, many of whom have a stake in its pet projects. The bill’s main purpose is to authorize projects by the Army Corps to improve navigation, reduce flood and storm damage threats and restore environmental damage. Its language also is intended to ensure the projects are based in economics and science.

Two senators who are usually polar opposites on environmental issues, Senate Environment Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and the committee’s senior Republican, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, each vowed to fight Bush by gaining enough votes — two-thirds in both chambers — to override a veto.

“America has been waiting seven years for this bill, which will bring restoration and storm protection to the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, provide flood control for communities like Sacramento, restore vital wetlands, and maintain the flow of commerce and the jobs that go with it,” Boxer said. “I expect we will override that veto in the Senate.”

Inhofe said the bill, “while not perfect, has received overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress and goes a long way toward addressing our nation’s water resource needs.”

In May, the Senate approved its version on a 91-4 vote. The House passed a similar bill in April on a 394-25 vote. Even if a final bill becomes law, the money must be appropriated later.

Criticism of the Army Corps and the bill’s spending has made it difficult to pass the Water Resources Development Act, which hasn’t been renewed since 2000. When Congress passed the original act in 1986, lawmakers envisioned it would be renewed every two years.

But Congress, wrote Portman and Woodley, must not increase the Army Corps’ already huge backlog of $38 billion in authorized projects by adding new ones for wastewater, drinking water, sewer overflows, waterfront development, transportation and abandoned mines. Nor should it approve a bill, they wrote, that would adopt new cost-sharing language for projects “that would shift potentially billions of dollars of cost” from local governments onto federal taxpayers.

Not all Democrats disagreed with Bush.

“I welcome the administration’s decision to veto this flawed version,” said Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis. “I supported the Senate version of this bill because it included strong reforms. But the conference report significantly weakened those reforms and raised the price tag to $21 billion in pet projects.”

By The Associated Press