Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer said she is “very optimistic” lawmakers will agree on a bill to authorize as much as $12.5 billion for dredging U.S. harbors and waterways, flood control and environmental restoration.
Lawmakers began negotiations today to merge House and Senate water resource bills passed earlier this year with rare bipartisan agreement. H.R. 3080, passed 417-3, would provide $8.2 billion while S. 601, passed 83-14, contains $12.5 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
“Keeping our infrastructure up to date is one of the basic functions we have in Congress,” said Boxer, a California Democrat.
Shipping companies including Maersk Inc. (MAERSKB), manufacturers including Caterpillar Inc. (CAT) and Deere & Co. (DE), and industry groups for grain, apparel, iron and steel signed a U.S. Chamber of Commerce letter supporting the bill.
Large commercial projects that would be authorized under the legislation include dredging the Sabine-Neches Waterway, a major oil and natural gas refining area on the Texas-Louisiana border, and deepening Savannah Harbor in Georgia.
It would be the first water infrastructure measure enacted since 2007, and it has been endorsed by small-government Tea Party Republicans as well as Democrats as way to boost exports by lowering shipping costs.
Ports and waterway operators have called for increased spending to prepare for new supertankers that will transit the Panama Canal after its $5.2 billion expansion, scheduled to be completed by 2015.
“America’s ports, like Port Everglades, need to be ready for the widening of the Panama Canal,” said Representative Lois Frankel, a Florida Democrat. “If they are not ready, the ships will pass them by.”
The conference committee convened a day after Vice President Joe Biden and mayors from U.S. port cities toured the Panama Canal with Panama President Ricardo Martinelli.
“When exports can carry two to three times more in each container ship, that saves business,” Biden said. “That saves fuel. And it makes manufacturers and farmers in America more competitive.”
The House and Senate measures are largely similar and would streamline environmental review processes in ways opposed by environmental groups. The bills differ on how they would authorize dredging, environmental restoration and flood control projects, as well as how to address projects that won’t have a completed U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report until after a water bill is enacted.
One possible area of dispute is a Senate provision that would create a National Endowment for the Oceans to address climate change as it affects the oceans, including acidification and increases in temperature and sea level.
House Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings, a Washington state Republican, said Congress “should not be creating a new off-budget fund that will restrict ocean and inland activities.”
House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican, said he was confident “we can resolve our differences and achieve a successful conference report.”
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