Sen. Chris Van Hollen was quizzing the new secretary of agriculture nominee about cuts proposed for the Chesapeake Bay program at a recent hearing when a senator who represents a state far from Maryland chimed in.
Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio had essentially the same question, but was focused on the Great Lakes.
Brown — like Van Hollen, a Democrat — wanted to know why President Donald Trump had proposed eliminating federal funding for the environmental effort that was finally beginning to bring those waters back to life.
"The irony," Brown said, "is it was Great Lake states that really won him the election."
As advocates and lawmakers fight a proposal to zero out $73 million in federal funding for the Chesapeake Bay, some are considering a bipartisan coalition to enlist help from states that have similar concerns about their own waterways, but might have more pull with the White House — including the Great Lakes states in the Midwest that were critical to Trump's election.
Trump proposed eliminating $427 million from "geographic programs" at the Environmental Protection Agency again this week, wiping out funding for cleanup efforts in the Great Lakes, Puget Sound, the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere. Though Republicans have often criticized the EPA as an overzealous regulator, the effort to restore the nation's best-known bodies of water has enjoyed wide bipartisan support.
By targeting multiple regions for the cuts, the administration raised the hackles of both Democrats and Republicans, and brought together states that compete for the same pot of cash. Lawmakers from a dozen states — seven Republicans and 28 Democrats — signed a letter in April to oppose the reductions.
The letter was organized by a group called America's Great Waters Coalition, created nearly a decade ago to corral support from all the regions that benefit from the EPA program.
"You wind up being able to send the administration something that is representative of the nation. It definitely elevates our voice," said National Parks Conservation Association President Theresa Pierno, a co-chair of the coalition. "We basically said an attack on one is an attack on all."
That effort appears to have paid off in the short term: Congress kept money for the bay and other programs in its measure this month to keep the government funded through September.
Now, that fight will be relitigated for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
"We're going to have to fight like hell to protect the bay funding, and it'll be very important that we work in partnership with the senators from the Great Lakes, a bipartisan partnership," said Van Hollen, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. "That is an important part of our strategy."
Cuts to the bay and other federal water programs are a small part of the $4 trillion federal budget the White House proposed on Tuesday. The document, already facing deep skepticism in Congress, would also slash funding for Medicaid, food stamps, disability insurance and other safety net programs.
White House officials have said they will no longer support inefficient programs.
But the EPA's water programs have been widely praised by Republicans, including such fiscal hawks as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who supported Trump's campaign last year. Rep. Andy Harris of Baltimore County, a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus whose district includes the Eastern Shore, has publicly supported Washington's role in the bay.
Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, is a leading defender of the Great Lakes cleanup — and the federal investment in that effort.
"One of the realities is that not all of us live in areas where there's an important body of water that's being threatened," he said. "To pull back now would be very risky."
A multi-state coalition could skew the politics on the issue, making the EPA funding more of a geographic issue than a partisan one.
A White House spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment. The administration has said recovery efforts should be paid for by the states that benefit most.
Eliminating the programs, the administration wrote in its budget proposal this week, would return the EPA to its "core national work."
"These programs perform local ecosystem protection and restoration activities, which are best handled by local and state entities," the administration wrote. "State and local groups are engaged and capable of taking on management of clean-up and restoration of these water bodies."
Advocates say previous state-led agreements had little impact on cleaning the bay. That's why the federal government intervened in 2010 and set up the so-called pollution diet, capping the volume of pollutants — fertilizers, sediment, industrial wastewater and urban stormwater — that may enter the estuary.
The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science this month gave the bay a rating that was among the highest out of three decades of data. The report found that the Chesapeake is 53 percent of its way toward reaching certain ecosystem health benchmarks.
Harris, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said he isn't a fan of joining forces with other states.
"I just don't think it's particularly necessary," he said.
Harris said it's widely known that a president's budget has "things in there that Congress would never agree to," and he believes "all or most" of the funding for the bay will be maintained next year. But starting off with a proposal to cut funding entirely, he said, could "allow us to begin a negotiation to revisit exactly how the money is being spent."
Pressed for an example, Harris said a discussion over funding could be used "to make sure all of the stakeholders are well represented in those efforts."
He pointed to the Eastern Shore poultry industry. The American Farm Bureau unsuccessfully challenged the bay program in federal court, arguing that it overstepped its authority.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue was noncommittal at his hearing under questioning from Van Hollen and Brown, saying he hoped the progress in the bay and Great Lakes would be continued. He was confirmed in April.
Trump's nominee for EPA, Scott Pruitt, appeared to be more supportive of the bay program and the multistate agreement to limit pollution.
"As it relates to enforcing that," he told Congress in January, "I can commit to you that, in fact, I will do so."
Maryland and Virginia both supported Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in November, and those states are represented by Democrats in the Senate. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, offered muted criticism of Trump during the election campaign, and a spokeswoman has said he, too, opposes the cuts to the bay.
Chante Coleman, director of the Choose Clean Water Coalition, said lawmakers have been working together "informally," and said scaling up the bipartisan approach that has taken hold in the Chesapeake region to the national level is an "exciting idea."
Kim Coble, vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, suggested that there would be strength in numbers.
"The congressional delegations from the Bay and Great Lakes watersheds have worked closely together, on a thoroughly bipartisan basis, to preserve federal participation in bringing our waters back to health," she said in a statement. "That same cooperation is essential if we are to preserve clean-water programs across the country in the 2018 fiscal year budget."