Legislation addressing California’s drought reached an inconclusive high-water mark Tuesday, passing the House on a largely party line vote before trickling off to a bleak fate in the Senate.
While the Republican-controlled House approved the California water bill by a 230-182 margin, California’s two Democratic senators oppose it with varying degrees of severity.
The Senate resistance and the bill authors’ inability to reconcile competing state interests effectively renders the stand-alone California Emergency Drought Relief Act a Capitol Hill orphan. Last-minute efforts to add similar language onto a separate spending bill continue.
“The people in the Central Valley are living through a disaster, and this measure provides the temporary relief they need,” House Speaker John Boehner said Tuesday.
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The 26-page bill introduced by freshman Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., that passed the House split lawmakers along lines that were both partisan and regional. The state’s long-standing divisions showed no signs of healing during the many months the water legislation has been discussed; if anything, the divisions appear exacerbated.
“Our collective energies should be devoted to a long-term solution for California’s water needs in a way that rewards working together, as opposed to dividing interests,” John Laird, secretary of the California Department of Natural Resources, wrote Tuesday.
During House debate Monday, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., denounced the “one percent of California” that has “dumped our water out into the ocean,” while Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., decried with equal vehemence the “small number of farmers in the Central Valley” that want to “eviscerate” environmental protections.
All of the Democrats who represent portions of the ecologically sensitive Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta voted against the measure Tuesday. These Democrats say they were cut out from the negotiations. At one point, Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., said House Republicans refused to brief California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer when she insisted on inviting House Democrats.
“It’s a bill intended to help one region of California at the expense of endangered species that can end up hurting millions of dollars worth of commercial fishing interests, farmers, tribes and neighboring states,” Miller said Tuesday.
One of only six Democrats who supported the House bill was Rep. Jim Costa, whose district spans farmland south of the Delta. No other California Democrat voted for the bill.
“Urban water users in the Bay Area and Southern California will get water, the fish will get water, but my folks on the east and west side of the San Joaquin Valley will get zero water without some operational flexibility,” Costa said.
The House bill boosts water exports south of the Delta, encourages the completion of water storage project feasibility studies and seeks to capture more runoff from early storms, among other provisions. It’s designed to last 18 months, or as long as the California drought emergency remains in effect.
The language of the House bill reflects legislation previously introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., as well as language that House Republicans attentive to San Joaquin Valley agriculture negotiated with her. Their discussions included not just the substance, but the process by which a bill would be attempted.
A $1.1 trillion omnibus bill provides the money to keep much of the federal government operating after Dec. 11. Some lawmakers have considered it the mostly likely vehicle to get California water language to the White House, and will continue pushing for that until the omnibus bill is finalized.
The Obama administration has threatened to veto Valadao’s water bill, making the must-pass omnibus measure an even more enticing option. Plans to finish the omnibus bill late Monday fell apart because of a dispute over a terrorism insurance program.
“It’s my hope that we'll reach agreement on legislation that can pass both the House and the Senate and enact a bill that moves water to Californians suffering from the drought and helps all of the state while not waiving environmental protections,” Feinstein said Monday.
Feinstein added that she opposes parts of the House bill that “waive environmental protections,” though in general she has been closely negotiating with GOP lawmakers. Boxer, her Democratic colleague, has been more skeptical.
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