WASHINGTON, Dec. 10, 2016 - The Senate passed a short-term fiscal 2017 spending bill to avert a government shutdown and then gave final congressional approval to a water projects bill that includes drought relief for California farmers.
A breakthrough on the spending bill, which will fund the government through April 28, came after a group of coal-state senators led by Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., failed to sustain a filibuster over their demands for a longer extension of miners’ health-care coverage. The continuing resolution only extends the coverage to April.
The CR under which the government had been operating since fiscal 2017 began Oct. 1 was scheduled to expire at midnight.
The new measure, which the Senate approved 63-36 about 11 p.m. Friday night, includes a provision to ensure that USDA’s Farm Service Agency can handle demand in coming months for farm operating loans. Similar provisions would also cover applications to USDA for rural housing and telecommunications loans.
The Senate approved the water projects measure, 78-21, early Saturday morning. Retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., launched an effort to get the drought provisions stripped out of the water bill, but she had little political leverage with her colleagues, and the Senate voted 69-30 to break her filibuster and move to the final vote.
The bill contains many popular provisions, including authorization of drinking-water aid for Flint, Mich., and the House would have had to have approved any changes to the legislation.
Boxer also had most of California’s congressional delegation against her. The drought provisions, which Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., worked out with House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, who represents the Bakersfield, Calif. area, would increase for five years water diversions from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta that have been limited because of endangered species protections for salmon and Delta smelt.
Most of California’s House delegation, including a majority of Democrats, voted for the legislation on Thursday, Feinstein noted.
Boxer, who has been the ranking Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said the bill “attacks head-on the Endangered Species Act. It gives operational instructions on how to move water in my state away from the salmon fisheries and to big agribusiness, regardless of what the science says.”
But Feinstein denied that the water provisions would override ESA requirements and said scientists “must review and approve every proposed action under this bill. … That’s what they do today and that’s they’ll do under this bill.”
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In order to ensure that farmers have adequate water during spring planting, the bill includes a provision that would expand the current water transfer period from the current July-September window to April-November. The bill also would require agencies to explain why they were pumping water at levels lower than what is allowed by biological opinions for protecting the fish habitat.
The Fresno (Calif.) Bee posted a scathing editorial during Boxer’s filibuster, saying she had “paid scant attention to the needs of San Joaquin Valley throughout her 24 years” in the Senate.
The bill, called the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, authorizes three inland navigation reports based on final Army Corps of Engineers reports - the Calcasieu Lock (Louisiana), the Upper Ohio Navigation System (Pennsylvania), and deepening of Brazos Island Harbor in Texas (Brownsville Ship Channel).
Left out of the bill was a provision opposed by shippers that could have authorized private tolls or lockage fees on the Illinois River or other waterways.
“An efficient, modern, reliable inland waterways transportation system is critical to our nation’s towboat operators, shippers, farmers, ports, and labor and conservation groups,” said Michael Toohey, president and CEO of the Waterways Council.
He said the bill will "help to create and sustain American jobs, increase exports, and strengthen the United States’ competitiveness in world markets."