Politics & Government

San Joaquin River maneuvering continues as Congress nears end

WASHINGTON — Political maneuvering over the San Joaquin River's future continues even as Congress grinds to a halt.

In a last-minute bid, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein has rewritten a river restoration bill so that it might avoid budgetary obstacles. Feinstein says stripping out money could ease passage of the environmentally ambitious bill.

"The only viable option is to make the bill (budget) neutral, then pursue legislation in the next Congress to fully restore the original funding provisions," Feinstein advised the Friant Water Users Authority late Friday.

Feinstein added that "this will give us momentum going forward," as environmentalists and Friant-area farmers try to complete a lawsuit settlement. Water would be flowing and salmon swimming again below Friant Dam by 2013 under the settlement.

But Feinstein's move caught even some of her Capitol Hill allies by surprise, and the odds still appear heavily stacked against success.

"I don't think that will fly," said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.

At the least, the latest maneuvering epitomizes how hectic Capitol Hill becomes as Congress rushes to adjourn. Political opportunities can rise and fall quickly amid the hubbub, and so can lobbying efforts. On Saturday, for instance, Fresno-area political activist Tal Cloud began trying to raise $10,000 for a quick campaign opposing Feinstein's efforts.

The river legislation is supposed to cap a 20-year-old lawsuit. The Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmentalists successfully sued the federal government, contending Friant Dam wiped out the San Joaquin River's salmon population.

The environmentalists won, and then negotiated a restoration plan with the farmers of the Friant Water Users Authority. For the past two years, lawmakers have tried without success to pass the legislation authorizing tens of millions of dollars in levee construction and other work the plan needs.

Under congressional budget-scoring rules, the river restoration bill has an estimated federal price of roughly $250 million. Feinstein initially folded the bill into a huge public lands package, designed to attract maximum political support by including about 140 separate bills.

Senators were having a hard time offsetting the cost of the public lands package. Conservatives also opposed the public lands omnibus as excessive. The package appeared dead. Then, late Friday, the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and other senators determined they could streamline the bill by removing some of the spending authorization. This outflanked the congressional "pay-go" requirement that bills be paid for.

"I think what the senator is trying to do is keep the bill in play," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced.

The revised river bill offers only $88 million in guaranteed spending. The rest must be appropriated by Congress in future years.

In theory, the revised public lands package might be taken up before the November election or in a potential post-election lame-duck session. In practice, this will still be very hard.

Costa, for one, represents farmers now raising alarms that river-related projects promised to them will never be built if the money isn't guaranteed up front.

"Given the financial crisis that this country is in, the likelihood of receiving substantial additional funding is more remote than ever," the Los Banos-based San Joaquin Valley Exchange Contractors wrote Monday.

In a thinly veiled warning, the West-side farmers further cautioned that if Congress pressed ahead quickly, there may be a "need to return to court."

Others, including the Chowchilla Water District and Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, are likewise insisting that Congress slow down.

The overall Senate public lands bill itself remains subject to objections by Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, with 60 Senate votes needed to overcome a potential filibuster even as Feinstein urges speed.

"Not to begin," Feinstein warned, "presents a real risk that the parties will return to court."