WASHINGTON DIGEST: Congress approves $12.3 billion in waterway infrastructure

WASHINGTON — The House and Senate last week approved a $12.3 billion bill that reforms the way the federal government funds construction and maintenance of harbors and inland waterways used for commercial shipping.

The bill authorizes 34 dredging, flood control and maintenance projects. It offsets those costs on paper by removing about $18 billion in dormant projects from an $80 billion backlog facing the Army Corps of Engineers that Congress had authorized in previous sessions without adequate funding.

Sponsors said the bill eliminates new “earmarks” from Congress — instead setting up a system for authorizing projects that would rely more heavily on local input to set federal priorities.

Critics, however, said the bill does not go far enough in reducing the backlog of pending waterway projects. They also expressed fears that politics and parochialism would influence the selection of new projects.

President Barack Obama is expected to sign the bill.

The House approved the bill 412-4.

Reps. Mark Amodei, R-Nev.; Joe Heck, R-Nev.; Steven Horsford, D-Nev.; and Dina Titus, D-Nev., voted for it.

The Senate voted 91-7 for the bill,

Sens. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and Harry Reid, D-Nev., voted for it.

SENATE CONFIRMS BARRON

A former Justice Department attorney who co-wrote a memo justifying the use of drones to kill Americans suspected of being terrorists overseas was confirmed to become a federal judge.

David Barron, a Harvard Law professor, was placed on the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by a 53-45 vote. All but two Democrats voted for him while Republicans voted against him.

The vote took place only after the White House provided senators with a copy of the controversial memo Barron wrote while serving in the Justice Department’s legal counsel office.

Beyond that, liberal supporters described Barron as a first-rate lawyer while conservative critics said he was too liberal.

Reid supported Barron. Heller voted against confirming his nomination.

HOUSE approves NSA CONTROLS

The House voted to end a controversial National Security Agency practice of bulk collecting phone records in the event they might be needed to investigate a terrorist threat.

Under the bill, NSA would no longer be allowed to amass the records. Instead, telephone companies would be required to hold records for 18 months and NSA would need to get a judicial order to gain access to phone records it believes are tied to terrorist plots.

Some lawmakers withdrew support for the bill saying some civil protections were dropped from an earlier version. In particular, they said the bill was stripped of a provision to place an independent public advocate on the court that oversees the NSA. Others said it failed to adequately narrow the broad sweep of data that the government could collect.

“Instead of targeting specific individuals, the bill would allow the government to collect data with very broad search terms like an entire area code,” said Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii.

But Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., said the bill “can protect both Americans’ civil liberties and our national security without compromising either one.” The committee’s top Democrat, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, said the bill “is a significant improvement over the status quo.”

The House voted 303-121 for the bill. Amodei, Heck and Titus voted for it. Horsford opposed it.

DEFENSE BILL ADVANCES

Despite a veto threat, the House approved a $601 billion defense authorization bill that would retain planes, ships and other military programs that the Pentagon wanted to knife.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has cautioned that training and maintenance programs could be jeopardized if Congress does not allow the Pentagon to cut costs elsewhere to comply with budget caps agreed to under a bipartisan budget deal lawmakers reached in December.

Ignoring the warning, the House voted to authorize spending at the agreed to caps but required the Pentagon to keep military bases open, retain its fleet of A-10 aircraft and maintain its fleet of Navy cruisers. The projects were part of the annual bill that sets policies for the Pentagon.

Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., said the Pentagon budget request — $30 billion less than last year — “is now cutting into the bone — cutting end strength, force structure and readiness — which is increasing risk to our forces.”

The bill was approved 325-98.

Amodei, Heck, Horsford and Titus voted for it.

The House rejected an amendment to close the Guantanamo Bay prison by the end of 2016.

Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., argued it would be less costly to imprison detainees in the United States rather than pay $2.7 million a year to hold each detainee in Guantanamo.

On the other hand, Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, said the Guantanamo camp “is safe and the most appropriate location for detainees to be held. It is secure. It is relatively distant from the United States. It is difficult to attack.”

The vote was 247-177 against closing the prison.

Amodei and Heck voted to keep the Guantanamo facility open. Horsford and Titus voted to close it.

Contact Peter Urban at purban@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760.

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