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Bushwhacked Again!

After seven years of acrimony, Congress finally reached an agreement on a critical water-resources bill for Louisiana. The only thing standing in the way is the White House.

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Congressman Richard Baker was stuck reviewing mark-ups in the Financial Services Committee, which isn't as hellish as it sounds for the wonkish Republican from Baton Rouge. He prides himself on being a stickler, garnering a solid reputation on the Hill for knowing the intricacies of even the most complex policies. As he poured through the amendments and riders being considered by the committee, word arrived from his office that he had been summoned, called to duty really, on an entirely different matter that demanded his immediate attention.

Baker knew instantly what was up; in fact, he was expecting the news. The quiet congressman found himself at the epicenter of a historic $21 billion water-resources bill for Louisiana and other states. But he was only half of a complicated equation. Trent Lott, the hard-biting senator from Pascagoula, Miss., and the former Senate majority leader, was the other half.

Lott wanted a freshwater diversion project for the Mississippi Sound to benefit oyster farmers in his state, and he was willing to play hardball to get it. Not only did Lott want Louisiana to pay for a large part of the project, but he also wanted to get the fresh water from Lake Pontchartrain, which raises several environmental issues. If he didn't get his way, Lott was threatening to block money aimed at helping Louisiana resolve its coastal erosion dilemma.

Congress had seen seven years of bitter infighting since passing a Water Resources Development Act, putting communities across south Louisiana on hold and keeping from them critical flood control projects. Baker didn't want to see Congress squander another opportunity, and he was prepared to stare down Lott to, among other things, help set a policy milestone. "A compromise had been reached on everything else and now it came down to this," recalls Baker, a member of the special conference committee charged with drafting a final version of WRDA.ÊÊ

Upon hearing the bill was back in play and Lott was ready to negotiate, Baker rushed from the committee hearing and put his staff into overdrive, working into the night of Thursday, July 26. By the time the sun came up the following morning, a deal had been struck between Lott and Baker: Louisiana will proceed with the diversion project using water from the Mississippi River at Violet in St. Bernard Parish. If the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finds that idea unworkable, the Lake Pontchartrain alternative would come back to the table.Ê "We both gave on this," Baker says, "and this option will help both states in the long run."

Everyone else in Congress fell in line, giving overwhelming approval to the WRDA measure, the largest bill of its kind in American history. The House voted 381-40 to endorse the compromise last week and the Senate is expected to do the same this week.

As a result, for the first time this decade, Congress had agreed to major water-resources funding for items such as the Illinois Waterways System and Florida Everglades. In south Louisiana, officials cheered the long-awaited authorization of Morganza-to-the-Gulf, a 72-mile hurricane protection system. In fact, the entire coastline, from Plaquemines to Cameron, benefits from the 16 other coastal restoration projects authorized under the Louisiana Coastal Area study in WRDA.

But the jubilation was cut short as rumors circulated that the White House would once again oppose the WRDA bill. In April, White House documents were leaked urging the deletion of Morganza, meant to protect the Terrebonne-Lafourche region, citing environmental concerns about the levee's impact on area wetlands. President Bush had also previously asked Congress to decrease the overall fiscal impact of the legislation and to delete other "unacceptable provisions," but lawmakers have stood strong.

In a letter sent to the bill's authors last week, Rob Portman, director of the administration's Office of Management and Budget, and John Paul Woodley, assistant secretary of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, confirmed that President Bush would indeed veto the legislation, no matter how Congress acts. "This is not how most Americans would expect their representatives in Washington to reach agreement, especially when it is their tax dollars that are being spent," they wrote.

The news seemed to shock even the most diehard Republicans in Louisiana's delegation, many of whom, like Baker, plan to oppose the White House's plans for a veto. Still, for anyone tuned in to the issue, two years worth of complaints from the White House are hard to miss. "I am stunned by the president's WRDA veto threat. And I have one basic response: I will enthusiastically work to override his veto," U.S. Sen. David Vitter said in a prepared statement.

Others argued that President Bush was overlooking the human element of WRDA. "By saying no to Morganza, the president is ignoring the 120,000 Americans in Terrebonne and south Lafourche who currently have no defense against storms and are like sitting ducks in the path of the next killer hurricane," says Rep. Charlie Melancon, a Democrat from Napoleonville who also represents portions of Acadiana.

While the overwhelming House vote from last week could alone be considered veto-proof, pundits and analysts expect President Bush to take his time in vetoing the legislation, thus giving his staff more time to lean on lawmakers to see things his way -- if that's possible. A two-thirds vote in each body would be needed for a veto override, but Republicans eager to please could change face once the president officially acts.

While President Bush's concerns are clear, Baker says the president should remember that WRDA has been seven years in the making. If President Bush had worked more diligently on passing a WRDA bill earlier in his administration, the total sum of this landmark legislation might not be as large. "I can understand the fiscal concerns of the White House," Baker says, "but I think it's important for them to consider that because of the long time it's taken to pass this bill, it's really three WRDA bills in one."

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

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