Groups push to advance package of Army Corps projects

Bill held up in conference committee negotiations; Senate version has stricter criteria for independent reviews of projects.

Port authority directors, agriculture groups and labor unions are pressuring lawmakers to wrap up in the lame duck session a long-awaited package of Army Corps of Engineers projects.

The National Waterways Alliance -- a loose-knit collection of groups -- plans to kick off a full-speed lobbying campaign this week to break a conference committee logjam over how major projects are reviewed. These divisions have stymied the reauthorization of the Water Resources Development Act since 2000, though historically it is renewed every two years.

Groups will run print ads this week that argue, "It's six years overdue," said Lisa Kelley, director of public policy at the National Corn Growers Association. "This is the closest the bill has been. Nobody wants to start from scratch and wait another two years since WRDA is the last thing that always gets going."

The Corn Growers and others will be urging state affiliates to run op-eds in major Midwestern newspapers and set up radio interviews featuring top industry officials at an upcoming conference this month of the National Association of Farm Broadcasters.

Once conferees return to Capitol Hill next week, groups will lobby in a style perhaps similar to a March 26 "Dial for WRDA" campaign that flooded the office of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., with calls.

The House WRDA bills authorizes about $11 billion, while the Senate version, passed July, includes $2 billion more in authorized projects for Louisiana in post-Katrina construction. The House passed its bill in July 2005 before the hurricane struck.

The Senate bill has more stringent criteria for independent reviews of Army Corps projects -- a backlash over levee failures that caused massive flooding in New Orleans during Katrina.

Budget watchdog groups estimate a conference report -- which satisfies all sides -- could carry an $18 billion price tag. The White House opposes the $11 billion in the House bill as too expensive.

Paul Rohde, president of the Midwest Area River Coalition 2000 and one of the leading coordinators of the National Waterways Alliance, said, "The longer we wait for WRDA, the more projects we have to authorize and the more expensive it will become."

Rohde's group, which represents agricultural producers, barge companies and others, has retained the year 2000 in its title since the group was created in 1992 to highlight the delay in a major lock construction and ecosystem restoration project in the Upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers. This project likely would cost the federal government close to $2 billion.

While congressional aides met over the recess, aides and lobbyists say progress has been slow. But there may be a last-minute push "and suddenly everybody finds the political will to get it done [and] they pull an all-nighter," a spokesman for House Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member James Oberstar, D-Minn., said.

The elections add an uncertainty to the picture. "I would suspect that we would try to get WRDA done in this Congress instead of starting from scratch in the next Congress," Oberstar's spokesman said.

But House Democratic leaders may opt to wait until next year to have a greater say as the majority party. "It could go either way," Oberstar's spokesman said.