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Senate approves $12.3 billion water bill, authorizing 34 projects

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WASHINGTON - Congress sent the White House a $12.3 billion water projects bill half the size of its last one seven years ago — before the economy sank into a deep recession that helped swell the government's debt and before lawmakers swore off cherry-picking pet projects for folks back home.

With a 91-7 vote Thursday, the Senate passed the bill authorizing 34 new projects over the next 10 years. The House passed it Tuesday after key lawmakers spent six months blending separate House and Senate versions approved last year.

The bill authorizes big new flood control projects for Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Fargo, North Dakota, and dredging and harbour expansions in Boston and Savannah, Georgia. But it also puts an end to $18 billion in dormant projects that Congress had passed before the last round of $23.3 billion in water projects was approved in 2007.

The new measure's reduced cost reflects a conscious effort by lawmakers to rein in spending, particularly in the House, where Republicans first elected in 2010 or 2012 balked at new spending. All of the projects included in the legislation came at the recommendation of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Some conservative and watchdog groups complained the bill was still bloated with unnecessary spending. But it had widespread support from state and local officials and business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as legislation that will produce jobs and enhance commerce.

"This is a strong, bipartisan bill," Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, R-Calif., hailed the bill's passage as a "good day" for a host of interests.

The seven votes against the bill were all cast by Republicans. One of those opposed, Arizona Sen. John McCain, said the bill did not do enough to rein in costs.

"It's still full of unnecessary and unwanted projects," he said.

Others who voted against it were Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Mike Lee of Utah and Pat Roberts of Kansas.

In Iowa, the bill authorizes roughly $73.1 million in federal spending to help build up flood protections in Cedar Rapids, which suffered devastating flooding in 2008. It also schedules $846 million for flood mitigation area around Fargo, North Dakota, and Moorhead, Minnesota.

The bill permits some $216 million for dredging and expansion in Boston Harbor and $492 million for expanding the fast-growing Port of Savannah in Georgia.

Besides authorizing projects, the bill makes changes to how future projects can seek funding and sets specific time and cost limits for studies on potential projects. It eliminates unnecessary Army Corps of Engineers reviews and speeds up environmental reviews for potential projects.

The bill also increases spending from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to pay for improvements to ports, and creates a five-year pilot program to provide loans and loan guarantees for various projects.

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