At drought talks on Capitol Hill, behind-the-scenes maneuvering

A dust devil kicks up debris as it whirls its way across a parched field on the outskirts of Stratford, Calif., on Sept. 30, 2014.
A dust devil kicks up debris as it whirls its way across a parched field on the outskirts of Stratford, Calif., on Sept. 30, 2014. Los Angeles Times/MCT

Late Thursday morning, while the Capitol Hill spotlight was pointed elsewhere, three Northern California congressmen paid a quiet call on the state’s junior Democratic senator, Barbara Boxer.

They wanted to talk water.

For upward of 40 minutes, in a room near the Senate floor, Democratic Reps. Mike Thompson, George Miller and Jared Huffman sounded an alarm about water legislation coming quickly down the pipe.

The private meeting preceded, but did not instigate, the unexpected end to the water bill negotiations, led by California’s Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Republicans in the House of Representatives. It took place even as House Republican staffers believed they were within days of finishing legislation addressing California’s drought.

Now, with Feinstein’s surprise decision Thursday afternoon to call a halt and restart talks in January with a more open process, officials and advocates must assess what went wrong, what went right and what comes next.

“I deeply believe the people want both parties to work together, and that is the only way we will be able to enact water legislation,” Feinstein said. “It’s my hope that groups critical of this effort will strive to be productive rather than destructive.”

A California water bill could take many forms.

A version passed by the House in February would authorize new water-storage projects on the Upper San Joaquin River and elsewhere, limit certain environmental protections for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and remove wild-and-scenic protections from a half mile of the Merced River in order to potentially expand McClure Reservoir, among other provisions.

A Senate version passed in May was far smaller in scope.

The immediate next step will be taken by House Republicans, some of whom felt the rug had been yanked out from underneath them just as they were 98 percent done. They worry that by the time Congress acts next year, another drought-ridden growing season will have passed.

“This is a crisis,” Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., said in an interview.

With Bakersfield Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy helping to control the House floor as majority leader, anxious GOP lawmakers could try several maneuvers. Staffers for California Republicans met Friday morning in McCarthy’s spacious Capitol office to plot strategy.

They could, for instance, try passing a stand-alone bill before the Dec. 11 adjournment, perhaps reflecting all or part of what’s been negotiated so far. That would make a statement and, at the least, set a foundation for next year. It would also face certain Senate resistance.

House Republicans could also try tacking a California water measure onto an omnibus appropriations bill, but this traditional method of hitching a ride on must-pass legislation is complicated by the broader uncertainties about what an unhappy Congress is willing to pass.

“I suspect they are going to try to do something,” Thompson said in an interview Friday, but “it’s going to be tough.”

The more likely outcome of legislating next year, Feinstein says, will proceed under “regular order.” In part, this could mean hearings before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee under its new Republican chairwoman, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Behind the scenes this year, Murkowski has already helped Feinstein move negotiations along.

The regular order now invoked by Feinstein might also mean bringing more constituencies into the room where the deals are getting cut.

“I want all the stakeholders at the table, and I want it to be science-driven,” Thompson said.

Huffman, who formerly chaired the water, parks and wildlife panel while in the state Assembly, added in an interview Friday that “it’s a chance for a fresh start, to do things in a more deliberative, transparent manner.”

Some groundwork for this year’s work began early.

Until this year, Nunes and Feinstein have had an occasionally testy relationship. But before the drought legislation negotiations began this year, Nunes Chief of Staff Johnny Amaral and his Feinstein counterpart, Jennifer Duck, met quietly in San Francisco. They discussed the parameters of what might be accomplished and agreed on the importance of discretion.

The conversations helped build what now appears to be a strong working relationship between two lawmakers who have seats on their respective congressional intelligence committees.

“We appreciate that she has negotiated in good faith,” Nunes said of Feinstein.

Since May, several legislative drafts have been handed back and forth.

Working from a rough framework, Feinstein sent proposed language to the Obama administration in late July. Officials were given two weeks to comment and make suggestions. Instead, the administration took several weeks longer. Some bill proponents began suspecting a deliberate delay, an effort to run out the clock.

Taking into account some of the administration’s technical suggestions, Feinstein sent the House a proposal in early October. House Republicans, in turn, sent back a response in early November, and the sides have been coming closer ever since. On Monday, McCarthy and Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., met privately with Feinstein and came away feeling pretty confident.

At the same time, Boxer has been making increasingly clear that Northern California lawmakers, environmentalists and other constituencies were also going to have to be brought into the room at some point. While negotiators have kept under wraps even the page length of the respective drafts, which have ranged between about 48 and 60 pages, some language has leaked out, particularly over the past week.

“Bits and pieces have been shared with us confidentially,” Huffman said. “We saw enough to know this was pretty terrible substance that was coming out of a flawed process.”

Environmental activists in California, too, began to receive leaks in recent days, and they, in turn, alerted the media and others to what might be happening. The alerts prompted some negative editorials this week, which Feinstein mentioned Thursday as she said she was pulling the plug.

Shortly after revealing her intentions Thursday afternoon, Feinstein was sharing a subway car with three of her top staffers. They appeared to be talking water as they zipped from the Capitol back to her Senate office building, where other work awaited.

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