WASHINGTON -- Secret negotiations over a California water bill are nearing a make-or-break moment, after a long, dry summer that’s tested some political alliances.
The state’s Democratic senators are struggling to balance sympathy for Central Valley farmers with concern for environmental protection. The Obama administration has sometimes moved slowly. Some regional conflicts remain unreconciled.
And time is short.
“We’re going back and forth,” Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said in Lake Tahoe recently. “It’s difficult, obviously, because the situation continues to worsen, not get better. And hopefully we will have something in the next couple weeks.”
Once it surfaces, the California water bill would be the most explicit congressional response to the drought that has dominated the state and decimated some farms. It could redirect water deliveries, authorize new dams and ease environmental rules. Or, it might be more modest.
Either way, the legislation would be the compromise between a 68-page version passed by the Republican-controlled House in February and a 16-page version passed by the Senate in May.
“The House and Senate continue to negotiate throughout the August recess,” noted Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., adding that “it is critical that the Senate and House put in place both immediate and long-term solutions to this water crisis.”
Diligently enforced secrecy shields the talks so far.
House Democrats who represent the 1,100 square-mile Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta say they aren’t privy to the negotiations. Participants have effectively imposed a gag order on themselves. Normally friendly staffers zip their lips. Normally clued-in lobbyists are cut out.
“If there are negotiations underway in secret, we would be concerned and troubled,” said Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif.
Underscoring the political calculations, Republicans say the Delta-area Democrats like Garamendi aren’t going to vote for the California water bill anyway, so it makes no sense to engage them.
Substantively, delicate balancing acts abound. House Republicans, for instance, have insisted on the necessity of authorizing new water storage projects. Some Senate Republicans, though, are leery of any bill with dollar signs attached.
One California Democrat who is participating in the talks, Rep. Jim Costa, said Friday that “there is a possibility” that the final bill includes a specific project like raising the earthen dam at San Luis Reservoir west of Los Banos, as part of a larger repair job.
“I think the discussions have been positive,” Costa said, adding that “we’re working hard, and we understand there is a critical timeline.”
The clock certainly adds challenges.
Congress returns from its August recess on Sept. 8, with but 10 legislative work days set for the month. By Oct. 4, lawmakers will depart again until, at least, after the November elections. Prospects for a post-election lameduck session remain uncertain.
Consequently, House and Senate staffers must essentially finish their grunt work this month so that members can settle any final differences and find floor time for voting.
Legislative proposals has been swapped on specific ideas; although not yet, apparently, as a complete package.
Kiel P. Weaver, long-time staff director of the House water and power subcommittee, is a key House negotiator. Feinstein is primarily represented in the negotiations by her legislative director John Watts, an attorney. A Republican staffer from the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is involved, as are individual offices like those of Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the original author of the House bill. Newly elected House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield adds heft.
Some progress has been reported, particularly between Feinstein and House Republicans. The still-complicated dynamics, though, include potential differences between Feinstein and Boxer. Feinstein is significantly closer to the state’s agricultural community than Boxer.
Donors affiliated with agribusiness ranked third among Feinstein’s campaign contributors between 2009 and 2014, records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics show. Farm-related donations did not rank among the 20 industries contributing to Boxer.
Boxer, in turn, is chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and is protective of the Endangered Species Act, a law that can steer California water away from farms.
“Senator Boxer has been giving her ideas and opinions throughout this process to make sure we are on the right track,” Boxer’s press secretary Peter True said.
At least one mid-August deadline for the Obama administration to deliver written proposals or responses came and went, according to one informed source. Costa, though, said Friday he didn’t know of any missed deadlines, and he indicated the administration is engaged and giving feedback.
A bill’s passage by the House would be simpler than in the Senate, where individual members can gum up the works. The Senate’s political future further thickens the plot, as a number of prognosticators predict Republicans could reclaim control following the November election. That prospect, in turn, could either accelerate or decelerate momentum for the package that’s still being worked out.
“I want to be careful here,” Costa said Friday, when asked for some details. “I don’t want to box us in.”