Baker knew instantaneously what the game was; he was expecting the news. Whether he relished it or not, the quiet-spoken congressman was at the epicenter of a historic $21 billion water resources bill for Louisiana and other states. But he was only half of a complicated equation. Trent Lott, former GOP majority leader and hard-charging senator from Pascagoula, Miss., was the other half.
For his part, Lott wanted a freshwater diversion project for the Mississippi Sound to benefit oyster farmers in his state ' and he was willing to play hardball to get it. Not only did Lott want Louisiana to pay for a large part of the project, he also wanted to use water from Lake Pontchartrain, which had several environmental drawbacks for the lake. If he didn't get his way, Lott was also threatening to block money aimed at helping Louisiana with its coastal erosion dilemma.
It's been seven years of bitter infighting since Congress endorsed a Water Resources Development Act, putting communities like Lafitte, Montegut and Mouton Cove on hold, keeping from them critical water-control projects. Baker didn't want to serve in another Congress that was willing to squander such opportunity, and he was prepared to stare down Lott to help set a policy milestone. "A compromise had been reached on everything else, and now it came down to this," recalls Baker, a member of the special conference committee charged with drafting a final version of WRDA.
Upon hearing the deal was back in play and Lott was ready to negotiate, Baker rushed from the committee hearing and put his staff into overdrive, working well into the night of Thursday, July 26. By the time the sun came up the following morning, a deal had been struck between Lott and Baker: Louisiana will proceed with the diversion project using water from the Mississippi River at Violet in St. Bernard Parish. If the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finds the option unfeasible, the Lake Pontchartrain alternative would come back to the table. "We both gave on this," Baker says, "and this option will help both states in the long run."
Everyone else in Congress fell in line, giving overwhelming approval to the WRDA measure, the largest bill of its kind in American history. The House voted 381-40 to endorse the compromise last week.
As a result, for the first time this decade, Congress had agreed to major water resources funding for items like the Illinois Waterways System and Florida Everglades. Back home in Louisiana, officials in the Bayou Parish Region were cheering the long-awaited authorization of Morganza-to-the-Gulf, a 72-mile hurricane-protection system meant to protect the Terrebonne-Lafourche region. In fact, the entire coastline, from Plaquemines to Cameron, benefits from the 16 other coastal restoration projects authorized under the Louisiana Coastal Area study in WRDA.
But the jubilation was cut short as rumors circulated that the White House would once again oppose the WRDA bill. In April, White House documents were leaked urging the deletion of Morganza from WRDA, citing environmental concerns about the levee's impact on area wetlands. President Bush had also previously asked Congress to decrease the overall fiscal impact of the legislation and delete other "unacceptable provisions," but lawmakers have stood strong.
In a letter sent to the bill's authors last week, Rob Portman, director of the administration's Office of Management and Budget, and John Paul Woodley, assistant secretary of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, confirmed that President Bush would indeed veto the legislation, no matter how Congress acts. "This is not how most Americans would expect their representatives in Washington to reach agreement, especially when it is their tax dollars that are being spent," they wrote. Due in part to the president's veto threat, the Senate tabled the legislation until its members return from their traditional August vacation.
The veto news seemed to shock even the most diehard Republicans in Louisiana's delegation, many of whom, like Baker, plan to oppose the White House's plans for a veto. Still, for anyone tuned in to the issue, two years worth of complaints from the White House were hard to miss. "I am stunned by the president's WRDA veto threat," said Sen. David Vitter of Metairie in a prepared statement. "And I have one basic response: I will enthusiastically work to override his veto." Others argued that President Bush was overlooking the human element of WRDA. "By saying no to Morganza, the president is ignoring the 120,000 Americans in Terrebonne and south Lafourche who currently have no defense against storms and are like sitting ducks in the path of the next killer hurricane," says Rep. Charlie Melancon, a Democrat from Napoleonville who also represents portions of Acadiana.
In a sign of the bill's importance to Louisiana, the oft-fractured Louisiana delegation united in a bipartisan stance against the president's veto threats, sending the president a letter last Thursday. "Since Congress last enacted a water resources bill in 2000, many of the projects authorized in H.R. 1495 have been pending for years, including the authorization of critical projects in Louisiana," the delegation wrote. "Furthermore, WRDA includes the historic creation of the Louisiana Coastal Area, a vital and comprehensive program for the restoration of our coast. We stand united behind H.R. 1495, and will support any efforts to override a veto of this important legislation."
While the overwhelming House vote from last week could alone be considered veto-proof, pundits and analysts expect President Bush to take his time in vetoing the legislation, thus giving his staff more time to lean on lawmakers to see things his way ' if that's even possible. A two-thirds vote in each body would be needed for a veto override, but Republicans eager to please could change face once the president officially acts.
While President Bush's concerns are clear, Baker says the commander-in-chief should remember that WRDA has been seven years in the making. If President Bush had worked more diligently on passing a WRDA bill earlier in his administration, the total sum of this landmark legislation might not be as large. "I can understand the fiscal concerns of the White House," Baker says, "but I think it's important for them to consider that because of the long time it's taken to pass this bill, it's really three WRDA bills in one."
Business organizations opposed the proposal, saying it would lead to job losses and higher prices for goods and services.
An attempt to repeal a six-year-old law that permits public school science teachers to use material outside a classroom's adopted textbook has been rejected by the Senate Education Committee.
New York Times poll shows Obama, Jindal have identical approval and disapproval ratings in the state.
OK, so they’re bentgrass, the type used on golf course greens. But grass is grass.
The Senate Finance Committee approved the bill Wednesday, despite opponents who argued it would shut down the storefront lenders.
A measure to allow the state to implement its own, less stringent plan for limiting carbon dioxide emissions unanimously passed the Senate.
FDA to regulate e-cigarettes, Jodie Foster gets married, Vermont to require labels on genetically-modified food, and more news for today, April 24, 2014.
Thursday's Blogs from the Bog!
A push to expand Louisiana's Medicaid program as allowed under the federal health care has been overwhelmingly rejected by the Senate health committee.
Louisiana welfare recipients would be prohibited in state law from spending the federal assistance at lingerie shops, tattoo parlors, nail salons and jewelry stores, under a bill that received the support Wednesday of a House committee.
Senators will consider whether to prohibit private businesses in Louisiana from paying unequal wages to employees of different genders for the same job.
Rep. Joel Robideaux has delayed bill hearings and said unless a compromise can be reached, he won't bring up the legislation this session.
Once again, Lafayette Parish School Board President Hunter Beasley is focused on an issue that has nothing to do with the educational well-being of our public school children.
After exhausting his appeals all the way to the state Supreme Court, the owner of the Tiger Truck Stop in Grosse Tete has no legal remedy left save one: do an end run around the high court via a bill that would grandfather his “right” to keep a 550-pound tiger enclosed in a pin at his roadside business.
Louisiana poet Darrell Bourque has won the 2014 Louisiana Writer Award, given annually to recognize outstanding contributions to Louisiana's literary and intellectual life.
Drivers would have to secure dogs riding in truck beds while on interstate highways, if the Senate agrees to a bill backed by the House.
An effort to prohibit employers from discriminating based on sexual orientation or gender identity was shelved Tuesday for the legislative session.
Louisiana won't lessen its penalties for marijuana possession, keeping laws on the books that allow people to be jailed up to 20 years for repeat offenses of having the drug in hand.
“This is one of the oldest divides that exists, and that divide is about the haves and the have-nots.”
It took a few weeks for the pitfalls to emerge in the governor’s $25 billion budget, but the time of judgment has finally arrived.
With pressure continuing to build for him to resign, Congressman Vance McAllister announced plans recently to remain secluded during the Easter break, but the Swartz Republican has said he’ll be back on the Hill casting votes and attending committee meetings when the congressional recess ends April 28.
A bid to limit the use of unmanned aircraft on private property in Louisiana stalled Monday in the Louisiana Senate.
A Shreveport lawmaker said Monday he's scrapping his proposal to name the Bible as Louisiana's official state book.
Attorney hopes fellow lawyers will join him in urging the D.A. to step aside and allow a competent, ethical challenger to take over the scandal-ridden office.
An official with the Louisiana Department of Education was arrested on a range of charges Friday after allegedly breaking into a home and brandishing a knife.