WASHINGTON — Sen. Barbara Boxer’s longtime relationship with environmentalists has been strained by compromises she’s made in the committee she leads to get major pieces of public works legislation through a divided Senate.
The California Democrat has worked closely this year with Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on a bill to advance U.S. Army Corps of Engineers water-infrastructure projects, including flood control, wetlands and beach restoration, navigation and port improvements, as well Sacramento’s Natomas Levee Improvement Program.
The Senate and the House of Representatives are currently working to reconcile their versions of the Water Resources Development Act, which both chambers approved this year by overwhelming bipartisan majorities, an unusual achievement in a Congress that has agreed on so little.
Boxer wrote language into the bill that expedites environmental impact reviews so projects can be approved more quickly, drawing praise from Republicans and business groups that consider the process burdensome. But the language disappointed environmental groups, which otherwise consider the four-term senator one of their staunchest allies in Congress.
Some of Boxer’s fellow Democrats and the Obama administration have expressed concern about the provisions.
Environmentalists have said the expedited reviews would undercut environmental laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. They said it would give too much power to the corps and take away opportunities for the public to participate in the review process.
“You need to have checks and balances on the Corps of Engineers,” said Scott Slesinger, legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Even the head of the corps civil works program would prefer to operate under the existing environmental laws.
“The administration is concerned that provisions in the House and Senate bills could increase litigation risk, and actually slow project approval, depending on agency resources,” Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, wrote in a letter this month to Boxer and other lawmakers who are working out the final bill.
Boxer said her bill makes the reviews more efficient and does not compromise environmental protection.
“Our bill protects every environmental law,” she said in a statement, “while ensuring that there will not be delays in environmental restoration, flood control and projects that support commerce.”
Boxer, who’s been in Congress for 30 years and in the Senate for more than 20 of them, has evolved from a liberal firebrand to a dealmaker as she’s gained seniority. She’s found reliable partners in two Republicans on the environmental panel: Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, the ranking member, and Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, a former chairman.
Though she is frequently at odds with the two Southern conservatives on a range of other issues, they have reached accommodations on water and surface transportation issues.
Boxer also has offered warm praise for her House counterpart on the water legislation, Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
What’s more, in September, she presented the George W. Bush Presidential Library with her first Climate Hero Award for its work on energy conservation. Boxer previously had described the Bush administration as one that “could hardly be worse” on global warming.
Her usual allies have reacted with dismay, but they still regard her as one of their foremost champions.
“We think she is one of the great conservation leaders,” said Adam Kolton, executive director of the National Wildlife Federation’s advocacy center in Washington. “But the language (of her bill) is nothing in keeping with her extraordinary environmental record.”
Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., a member of her committee, said he considers Boxer’s environmental credentials solid and her bill’s intent worthy, but he nonetheless voiced objections.
“The language, to me, presents problems,” said Cardin, who voted for the bill but offered an amendment that sunsets the streamlining provisions after 10 years.
Critics of Boxer’s legislation say it would worsen a $60 billion backlog of projects that have been approved but for which there’s no funding. According to a recent Congressional Research Service report, the annual corps civil works budget has ranged from $4.5 billion to $5.5 billion over the past decade, and that an increasing share of the funds go toward operations and maintenance.
“This isn’t speeding anything up,” said Kolton.
Slesinger of the Natural Resources Defense Council said Boxer’s bill values projects in the public interest such as flood control in Sacramento the same as less worthy ones.
“All you’re doing is making it less likely that there is going to be a good review,” he said.
Boxer has noted that at least one major environmental group, the Nature Conservancy, supported her bill. But in a statement following the bill’s Senate passage in May, the group made it clear that it didn’t support all of the provisions.
In October, the group gave Boxer its “Nature’s Value” award, making her among 57 lawmakers in both parties that the group recognized for their work on conservation issues.
In a letter last month to members of the House-Senate conference committee working on the bill, 14 environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Earthjustice and the League of Conservation Voters, asked the lawmakers to abandon the streamlining language.
“There is absolutely no evidence that the process would produce better projects,” the groups wrote.
Among the Senate provisions they proposed for elimination: requiring the corps to fine other federal agencies, such as the Fish and Wildlife Service or the Environmental Protection Agency, as much as $20,000 a week if they missed the deadline to complete project reviews. The requirement “turns a cooperative process into an adversarial one,” the letter said.
The Obama administration, too, objects to the fines, Darcy wrote in her December letter, citing the budget cuts and staff furloughs caused by mandatory, across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration.
The environmental groups also wanted the lawmakers to strike a House provision eliminating public comment on most final environmental impact statements, “one of the most important opportunities” for public input, the groups wrote.
Rebecca Judd, legislative counsel for Earthjustice, said the groups would continue to work with Boxer, but they “fundamentally disagree” with her on the bill.
The water infrastructure bill has been one of the bright spots in a bitterly divided Congress.
“Getting 83 votes in favor when bipartisanship is missing in the Senate is very important,” Boxer said in May, after all but 14 senators voted for her bill.
Vitter lauded her leadership and called the bill “one of the most important and impressive bipartisan bills to come out of our committee.”
The House approved its version in November by an even more lopsided margin of 417-3. But the unity has been fleeting amid the continuing stalemate over issues such as immigration, food stamps, farm subsidies, judicial nominations and the health care law.
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