The House on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a massive water projects bill that has languished for years over its price tag and how the Army Corps of Engineers does business.
The overall cost of the bill is at least $15 billion. Supporters of the bipartisan measure, passed by a 394-25 vote, say it's needed to fund hundreds of projects in nearly every state to improve flood protection, modernize the nation's waterways and restore the environment.
"This is an investment in America," said the bill's chief sponsor, Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn.
Senate action pending, White House opposes
The Water Resources Development Act includes $1.8 billion for construction of seven new locks on the upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers and another $1.6 billion for ecosystem restoration along the rivers.
Farm groups and shipping interests have been pushing for years to upgrade the lock system to help speed grain-laden barges to Southern ports.
Billions more are targeted for restoration of the Florida Everglades and for hurricane and flood protection in Louisiana and the Gulf Coast in the wake of damage from Hurricane Katrina.
Similar measures passed in both the Senate and the House last year, but they never made it out of conference committee before the end of the session. Senate consideration of nearly identical legislation is expected later this year.
The White House opposes the bill, arguing that it's even more expensive than the $10 billion version considered last year. The Bush administration wants states to share more of the cost for certain projects and ensure that they are economically and environmentally feasible.
Supporters credit much of the increase to a surge in construction costs and say projects only get more expensive every year they are delayed.
"I do realize the constraints the administration is working on with a tight budget situation," said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla. "But we're finding billions to reconstruct Iraq and we have a crumbling infrastructure in our own back yard."
No water construction legislation has passed Congress since 2000, when a government auditor discovered that Army Corps of Engineers officials doctored a report to justify new locks on the Mississippi. Since then, environmental and taxpayer groups have called for an independent panel to review corps projects to ensure that are not wasteful.
"This bill has a peer review section, but it's wholly inadequate," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "Something that came out of Hurricane Katrina was the idea of having truly independent peer review for costly, controversial or critical projects."
Ellis said he is satisfied with independent review provisions in the Senate's version of the bill, though his group still opposes the bill overall because it costs too much and is loaded with wasteful projects.
Taxpayer and environmental groups praised an amendment from Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., that requires the corps to update its guidelines to make sure projects are economically and environmentally sound.