By Henry C. Jackson
WASHINGTON — After weeks of intense partisan fights, the House is showing it can come together on major legislation after all.
Voting on its first big bill since the end of a 16-day partial government shutdown, House Republicans and Democrats acted in near unison, voting 417-3 to pass an $8.2 billion bill that sketches out plans for dams, harbors, river navigation and other water projects for the coming decade.
In doing so, the House brushed aside criticism from outside conservative groups, many of which backed the shutdown and opposed the water bill.
Members of both parties said the vote showed the House could knuckle down and work together on important legislation even after a bitter fight over the shutdown a potential federal default. Lawmakers praised the legislation as a potential job creator and said it would allow vital infrastructure upgrades in waterways across the country to move forward.
“It’s another example of the people’s house focusing on way to strengthen our economy,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said after the vote. “I’m proud that it passed with a strong bipartisan vote.”
Conservative Republicans defied conservative groups such as FreedomWorks and Heritage Action for America that opposed the water projects bill after whipping up sentiment for the government shutdown as a tactic for rolling back President Barack Obama’s health care law.
That strategy ultimately failed despite the Obama administration’s troubled rollout this month of computerized exchanges for people to buy medical insurance.
The water bill’s sponsors attracted support from members of both parties by including projects from coast to coast and labeling the measure an engine for job creation. To attract conservatives, sponsors emphasized the measure’s lack of earmarks, or projects for lawmakers’ home districts, and changes including an accelerating of required environmental reviews that have dragged out many projects for years.
“Transportation is one of the few things Congress should actually spend money on,” said Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., a conservative elected in the tea party wave of 2010.
“Make no mistake, this is a jobs bill,” said Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., who like Massie voted last week against the measure that ended the shutdown and averted a potential federal default.
Although the legislation labeled the Water Resources Reform and Development Act “contains reform in the title, it fails to deliver on the promise,” 10 conservative groups wrote in a letter to lawmakers. The groups said the bill did not do enough to cut spending or block unneeded projects.
Congress last enacted a bill approving water projects in 2007, a lapse that created pent-up demand among lawmakers for such work.
“This bill is about strengthening our infrastructure so we can remain competitive. It’s about economic growth, it’s about trade, it’s about jobs,” said Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which wrote the measure.
Added Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., “Repairing our nation’s aging infrastructure, including our water infrastructure, is the best jobs creator out there.”
Shuster’s committee had no firm estimate on how many jobs would be created nationally by the legislation.
Wednesday’s debate underscored lawmakers’ sensitivity to public opinion polls showing voters’ disdain for Congress rising to new heights.
“We have today the opportunity to demonstrate that Congress can work toward the best interest of our country,” said Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., a conservative who opposed last week’s bill reopening the government and averting default.
Business groups led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers strongly backed the bill. The chamber distributed state-by-state fact sheets and said it would consider the measure a “key vote” when it determines which lawmakers to support in next year’s election.
The legislation would allow work to proceed on 23 shipping channel, flood management and other water projects that the Corps of Engineers has started studying. Actual money for the work would have to be provided in future legislation.
The bill gives the go-ahead to a slew of projects, including a more than $800 million flood protection project in Fargo, N.D., and Moorhead, Minn.; a $461 million on expansion of the Savannah, Ga., port; and up to $43 million for the San Clemente, Calif., shoreline. The measure increases the share of federal dollars for the Olmsted Lock and Dam project on the border between Illinois and Kentucky.
It also would shelve at least $12 billion of old, inactive projects while accelerating environmental reviews, which Republicans said had slowed many projects almost to a halt.
Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, said the bill would allow the deepening of Texas’ Sabine-Neches Waterway, which he said he and his predecessors in Congress have been working on for 16 years.
“Since that time, all four of my kids have finished high school, graduated from college, gotten married and given me 10 grandkids. The United States has fought two major wars. … Something wrong with this picture,” Poe said.
Some Democrats and environmental groups objected to the speedier reviews, saying they would weaken environmental protections. Many Democrats said they would back the bill anyway and try to change the language when House and Senate bargainers try to put a compromise version together later. The Senate passed its version of the water bill in May with a broad, bipartisan vote.
“The real problem is lack of money,” said Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J, “not environmental reviews.”