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House OKs $14 billion measure for clean-water projects

The Baltimore Sun

Washington -- Setting up a confrontation with President Bush over spending, the Democratic-controlled House approved a bill yesterday that would increase funding for clean-water projects, such as those aimed at preventing beach pollution.

The bill, which would authorize $14 billion over four years, was approved on a 303-108 vote, despite a White House veto threat. It now goes to the Senate.

The debate offered a preview of coming budget fights between the White House and the Democratic majority in Congress. The bill was backed by 224 Democrats and 79 Republicans, underscoring the appeal of paying for popular local projects at a time when earmarks for such spending have been scaled back.

All the no votes were cast by Republicans who largely objected to a labor provision.

The provision, which would require workers on clean-water projects to be paid the local "prevailing wage," drew objections from the White House, as did the bill's price tag. Bush has repeatedly targeted the clean-water program for cuts as part of his effort to reduce the federal budget deficit.

Under the measure, California - due to receive $76 million this year - would get about $143 million next year, with the amount rising to about $357 million in the fiscal year that starts in 2011, according to the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.

Ken Kirk, the group's executive director, called the House vote a "solid first step toward averting a crisis of crumbling infrastructure that threatens the water quality gains of the last 35 years under the Clean Water Act."

Some groups were organizing a lobbying campaign to not only win Senate approval, but build enough support to override a presidential veto.

The bill reauthorizes the clean water state revolving fund, which helps state and local agencies pay for projects such as upgrading aging sewage treatment plants and preventing runoff of polluted water.

The measure gave Democrats an opportunity to deliver on an issue important to two key groups - environmentalists and labor.

Among those objecting to the labor provision, Rep. John L. Mica, a Florida Republican, called it an "earmark for labor union bosses" that would make water projects more expensive.

Terence M. O'Sullivan, general president of the Laborers' International Union, said in a statement that the bill protects workers "both union and nonunion, by ensuring that local wages are paid and that government-sponsored projects do not drive down local standards."

The fight over the labor provision comes as Bush, who has vetoed only one bill during his presidency, has threatened to veto two other labor-friendly measures moving through Congress - a House-passed measure that would make it easier to form a union and a bill before the Senate that would give airport screeners collective-bargaining rights.

The bill approved yesterday was the third water-quality measure passed by the House this week. The White House objected to all three, calling each "unrealistic in the current fiscal environment."

Richard Simon writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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