Five questions crucial to future of California drought legislation

FILE -- In this May 18, 2015 file photo, Gino Celli checks the moisture of land just planted with corn seed he farms near Stockton, Calif.
FILE -- In this May 18, 2015 file photo, Gino Celli checks the moisture of land just planted with corn seed he farms near Stockton, Calif. AP

The House of Representatives’ passage Thursday of an ambitious and controversial California water bill now starts a round of maneuvering that will show whether a divided Congress can get its act together and legislate.

There’s reason for skepticism. Start with the general gridlock and incessant partisanship that has earned Congress a 79 percent public disapproval rate. Add to this the inherent regional conflicts, historical baggage and technical complications that surround Western water, and the odds for legislative success sink further.

Even judging the significance of federal water legislation invites some skepticism. As House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield noted Thursday, “We can’t make it rain.” The drought has its own, untouchable timetable. Some potentially big actions, like raising Shasta Dam or expanding San Luis Reservoir, would not help this year or even next. In some cases, a little fine-tuning might be the most that can be reasonably expected.

Still, whether one likes it or not, the 170-page House bill approved on a largely party line 245-176 margin moves Congress one step closer to definitive action on California’s drought. The bill’s future prospects will turn on several questions, which include:

Q. Sen. Dianne Feinstein thread the needle?

A. Feinstein is key. California’s senior senator, the 82-year-old lawmaker has long relished her deal-making role on big state issues. She is respected by farmers, some of whom are her most loyal campaign contributors, and she can be painstakingly dogged in pursuit of compromise. Last Congress, House Republicans say they came very close to completing a water deal with her.

Water, though, can defy political will. Feinstein was pushing hard to write a bill that could be introduced before a June 2 Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, but couldn’t pull it off. At the time, she sounded discouraged. This week, she said she is “hopeful we can come to an agreement.”

Q. How vigorously might Sen. Barbara Boxer resist?

A. It’s a fact. A bill considered sufficient by House Republicans representing California’s San Joaquin Valley could discomfit Boxer, who has a lifetime voting score of 90 percent from the League of Conservation Voters. (Interestingly, Feinstein has a lifetime LCV score of 89, which suggests the limitations of relying on interest-group voting scores to distinguish lawmakers.)

While Feinstein praised part of this year’s House GOP bill, Boxer cast it as an “unfortunate” effort that would “only reignite the water wars.” Last year, Boxer’s opposition helped block a final deal. Through their 22 years of service together in the Senate, Boxer and Feinstein have often maintained a united front.

The water bill could crack that unity. In doing so, it could also force Boxer to decide how hard she might fight above and beyond a simple “no.” Whether her impending retirement affects Boxer’s handling of the drought is an open question.

Q. Can lawmakers transcend partisan temptations?

A. Only five House Democrats voted for the House’s California water bill Thursday. and though McCarthy called it a “bipartisan” package, it was effectively written by and for Republicans. In some ways, GOP lawmakers seemed intent on drawing distinctions.

Shortly after the House vote, the National Republican Congressional Committee declared that “vulnerable Democrats from across California put partisan concerns ahead of much-needed drought relief” and warned that “voters will remember next November.”

McCarthy hinted at more of the same, when he declared that “we will solve this problem with you or without you,” while Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., stated that “continually, nearly all the Democrats have voted no” against water bills.

Yes, partisanship inflects both sides. As Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., noted, “Unfortunately, I guess all of us, in one way or another, hang on to our past rhetoric and ignore the opportunity that really demands our attention now.” At the very least, though, a successful California water bill will need to win over six Senate Democrats in order to clear parliamentary hurdles.

Q. Whither the Obama and Brown administrations?

A. The White House Office of Management and Budget threatened a presidential veto of the House bill, saying the legislation “was developed with little input from the public, the administration or key stakeholders affected by the drought.” The Brown administration in Sacramento was not quite as explicit, though officials pointed to a Congressional Budget Office assessment that the bill would preempt state authorities. For California officials, that’s not considered a good thing.

Lawmakers can work their way around a veto threat in several ways, including changing the offending language and folding the California bill into a larger package with greater political appeal. The administrations, in turn, can modulate their responses. Last year, Republicans complained the Obama administration deliberately slow-walked water bill discussions.

The key here could be whether Feinstein can get Sacramento on board. If that happens, even residual Obama administration resistance might be overcome or out-maneuvered.

Q. What about other states?

A. California is not alone in suffering from drought, and it won’t be alone in a congressional response. The chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, has made clear her intention to put together a West-wide package.

Omnibus packages like this are a classic tool for legislating. It’s how Congress in 1992 passed the environment-minded Central Valley Project Improvement Act, folded in among some 29 other bills covering numerous other Western states. Big bills, though, can also become big targets, and lawmakers must take care in loading up the choo choo train.