California GOP members stick a fork in talks over drought relief legislation

By Stephen Davies

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WASHINGTON, Dec. 11, 2015 - A frustrated group of House Republicans from California today declared drought relief legislation for their parched state dead for the year.

“Our good-faith negotiations have come to no positive resolution,” Rep. Ken Calvert said at a Capitol Hill press conference. “The true losers in this process are the people of California.” Then, alluding to heavy precipitation expected as part of this winter's El Niño weather conditions, he added, “We'll never have this opportunity again.”

The 14 GOP members blamed the collapse of negotiations on Sen. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who insisted in a statement today that there was still an opportunity to make headway on a water bill by going through “regular order” - passing a bill in the Senate and then hashing out differences with the House in a conference committee.

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But House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R.-Calif., said, “I think she probably doubts that herself.” 

Last week, Feinstein called “regrettable” an attempt by House Republicans to include water legislation in an omnibus bill that would fund the federal government for fiscal 2016. Then yesterday, the Los Angeles Times published an editorial blaming House Republicans for the failure of the negotiations.

That editorial was “the final straw,” Calvert said.

“It's sad when the LA Times editorial page gets the story wrong, but it is a tragedy for so many Californians when the Senate gets the policy wrong,” Calvert said.

The Times editorial board said California's GOP House delegation “took a foolish step last week when members stuck an unfinished drought relief bill onto the omnibus spending bill, then suggested that Sen. Dianne Feinstein, with whom they had been negotiating for months, was on board. She wasn't.”

But the GOP members said Feinstein had suggested using the omnibus, and that the compromise language had been worked on for months. The language “retains Democratic priorities as well as Republican priorities that the Obama Administration had largely agreed not to oppose,” the GOP members said in a written summary of the negotiations distributed after the press conference.

“We believed we were moving toward an agreement because that language had been worked out over a great deal of time,” McCarthy said. Once Feinstein backed out, the administration backed out, he said.

“Taking advantage of the must-pass omnibus was Sen. Feinstein's idea,” Calvert said. “I agreed with her. The deal was close to done but unfortunately, Sen.Feinstein took umbrage over something that occurred in a closed-door meeting. To be clear, no one outside of a few high-level negotiators knew about that until her press release walking away from the deal. That small slight was not worth throwing away all that we had achieved.”

The losers, they said, are the farmers and farmworkers who have suffered through four years of drought and will now miss an opportunity to use the winter's rains.

In today's statement, Feinstein said, “The bill that Republicans tried to place in the omnibus last week - in my name and without my knowledge - hadn't been reviewed by me, Sen. Boxer, the state or the White House. Each of those parties is key to coming up with a bill that can actually be signed into law.” Barbara Boxer is California's other Democratic U.S. senator.

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Feinstein aid there are “at least a half-dozen items in the bill that I had rejected and that would have drawn objections from state or federal agencies - some of them would likely violate environmental law. Several more provisions were still being negotiated and hadn't been reviewed by state or federal stakeholders.”

But Republican Rep. Tom McClintock said thatfully half of the provisions in the measure were taken from her verbatim, including massive public subsidies for recycling and desalinization that I and many Republicans opposed because of their extreme cost and relatively small water yield. The other half were Republican proposals that have been greatly weakened from what we had originally proposed, including using fish hatcheries to meet (Endangered Species Act) requirements, setting time limits on CALFED studies, and strengthening Northern California senior water rights.”

The CALFED Bay-Delta Program is a collaboration among 25 state and federal agencies with the mission of improving California's water supply.

Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., said Feinstein and Boxer will suffer at the ballot box for blocking drought relief measures. Boxer's term is up next year, Feinstein's in 2018.

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