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River Locks Bill Held Up Over Corps Oversight Concerns

Wed August 15, 2007 - National Edition

WASHINGTON (AP) The Senate left for its summer recess without passing a bill to replace outdated locks on the upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers, as lawmakers again raised concerns over how the Army Corps of Engineers does business.

The $20 billion Water Resources Development Act was expected to clear the Senate overwhelmingly on Aug. 3, despite a threatened presidential veto. The same bill passed the House by a 381-40 vote on Aug. 1.

But Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., blocked the measure, saying a conference committee watered down corps oversight provisions that had been part of the original Senate bill.

“After a decade of government and independent reports about problems with the corps, and the tragic failures of New Orleans’ levees during Hurricane Katrina, the American people deserve meaningful reforms,” Feingold said in a statement.

The bill includes $1.95 billion to replace seven locks with new chambers that are twice as long, while an additional $1.7 billion would target ecosystem restoration along the rivers.

Midwestern lawmakers, farmers and barge operators have backed the lock improvement plan for more than a decade as a way to speed the transport of grain shipments to Southern ports. The entire project would take about 20 years to complete, creating thousands of new jobs in Missouri and Illinois.

Feingold wants to reinstate a requirement that corps projects more than $40 million are reviewed by an independent panel of experts to ensure that they don’t waste taxpayer money or endanger public safety.

That provision was in the original Senate version of the bill, but was changed by negotiators trying to resolve differences between versions passed by the House and Senate earlier this year.

Feingold complained that the compromise measure lets the corps review costly projects internally and allows the agency to exempt projects it considers noncontroversial. He was able to block a vote on the bill Aug. 3 because of Senate procedures that required unanimous consent.

President Bush has vowed to veto the bill as too costly, but lawmakers are believed to have more than enough votes to override a presidential veto.

Missouri Sen. Kit Bond, who has pushed the lock improvement plan for years, said he does not expect the delay to threaten ultimate passage of the bill.

“Despite a veto threat, I am confident that with the bill’s broad bipartisan support, we will see a water resources bill signed into law soon after Congress returns,” the Republican said in a statement.

Postponement of the vote was seen as a mixed blessing by other lawmakers who support the legislation, but wanted to put off a vote because they feared President Bush could issue a “pocket veto” while Congress is in recess.

A pocket veto would require Congress to pass the legislation all over again, delaying it even further.

While Senate legal staff members said they doubted Bush could issue a pocket veto, Rep. Richard Baker, R-La., said the legal questions were serious enough to warrant holding off on a vote until September.

A huge chunk of the authorized money, about $3.5 billion, would go toward hurricane protection in New Orleans and restore wetlands in coastal Louisiana. The bill also includes more than $2 billion for projects in California and $2 billion for Florida, with most of that for Everglades restoration.

When Congress first passed the water projects law in 1986, lawmakers envisioned its renewal every two years. But controversy over the justification for corps projects has prevented renewal since 2000.

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