WASHINGTON — After weeks of intense partisan fights, the House is showing it can come together on major legislation after all.
Voting on its first big bill since the end of a 16-day partial government shutdown, House Republicans and Democrats acted in near unison, voting 417-3 to pass an $8.2 billion bill that sketches out plans for dams, harbors, river navigation and other water projects for the coming decade.
In doing so, the House brushed aside criticism from outside conservative groups, many of which backed the shutdown and opposed the water bill.
Members of both parties said the vote showed the House could knuckle down and work together on important legislation even after a bitter fight over the shutdown a potential federal default. Lawmakers praised the legislation as a potential job creator and said it would allow vital infrastructure upgrades in waterways across the country to move forward.
“It’s a testament to the greatness of our system of government, despite what’s happened the last several weeks, that we can still work together on something like this,” said Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, the senior Democratic on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, which wrote the bill.
Added House Speaker John Boehner, “It’s another example of the People’s House focusing on ways to strengthen our economy.”
To pass the bill, many conservative Republicans had to ignore the concerns of outside groups like FreedomWorks, Taxpayers for Common Sense and Heritage Action for America that had backed the shutdown. They were among 10 groups that wrote lawmakers in opposition to the bill, saying it didn’t do enough to cut spending or block unneeded projects.
Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Hollidaysburg, said he was able to persuade some of the House’s most conservative members to vote for the bill by making a constitutional argument.
“I’m a constitutional conservative,” said Shuster, the chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and the bill’s sponsor along with Rahall. “I believe this is one of the few roles the federal government has, in the infrastructure of this country ... this is a federal responsibility.”
Supporters also emphasized the bill’s potential as an economic engine, though Shuster’s committee could not provide an estimate on how many jobs its passage could create. Backers also assuaged conservatives by stressing the bill was free of earmarks, or projects for lawmakers’ home districts, and by making changes that included accelerating the pace of required environmental reviews that have slowed some projects for years.
Another selling point was that it would shelve at least $12 billion in old, inactive projects that had been approved in the last water bill Congress enacted, in 2007.
The pitch worked.
Some of the most conservative members of the House not only voted for the measure, but spoke on its behalf. They included Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., who last week opposed a deal to end the government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling.
“Transportation is one of the few things Congress should actually spend money on,” said Massie, who was elected in the tea party wave of 2010.
Business groups, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, had pressured lawmakers to vote for the bill and highlighted its potential to create jobs. The chamber distributed state-by-state fact sheets and made the measure a “key vote” when it determines which lawmakers to support in next year’s election.
The bill touches virtually every aspect of U.S. waterways. The legislation will allow work to advance on 23 shipping channel, flood management and other water projects that the Corps of Engineers has already studied, although actual money for the work will have to be provided in future legislation.
Among other projects, the bill gives the go-ahead to a more than $800 million flood protection project in Fargo, N.D., and Moorhead, Minn.; a $461 million on expansion of the Savannah, Ga., port; and up to $43 million for the San Clemente, Calif., shoreline. The measure increases the share of federal dollars for the Olmsted Lock and Dam project on the border between Illinois and Kentucky.
Some Democrats, the White House and environmental groups objected to the speedier environmental reviews included in the bill, saying they would weaken environmental protections.
But Democrats and the Obama administration said they would support the bill anyway and would hope for changes to the language when House and Senate bargainers try to put a compromise version together later. The Senate passed its version of the water bill in May with a broad, bipartisan vote but the bills need to be reconciled before one can be sent to President Barack Obama.