DALLAS – Leaders of a conference committee meeting Wednesday to reconcile House and Senate versions of an $8 billion water infrastructure bill predicted its smooth passage by Congress before the end of the year.

“I’m optimistic that we can come to an agreement and send a bill to the President in as short an order as we can,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chair of the committee of 28 House members and eight Senators, 19 of whom are Republicans and 17 Democrats.

“I am confident that we can work together to resolve our differences while maintaining strong support in both the House and Senate,” Boxer said. “Keeping our infrastructure up to date is one of the basic functions we have in Congress.” 

Staff talks on a compromise will continue over the two-week Thanksgiving recess, Boxer said.

Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., co-chair of the conference committee and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the reconciliation should be eased by the overwhelming support of the two bills in both chambers of Congress.

He cited the 417-3 vote in the House last month for the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (H.R, 3080). “In the House we have worked together in a bipartisan way on this bill since day one,” Shuster said. “There are areas in our bills where we differ,” he said. “But I am confident at the end of the day we can resolve our differences and achieve a successful conference report.”

The Congressional Budget Office projects spending authorized by the House bill will be $3.5 billion through fiscal 2018 and another $4.7 billion from 2019 through 2023.

The Senate voted 83 to 14 for the Water Resources and Development Act (S 601) in May.

The White House said last month it favors the Senate bill but finds the House measure acceptable.

The Senate bill includes the five-year, $250 million Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act for flood control and drinking water programs, based on the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act that funds transportation projects. 

The WIFIA loan program is not in the House bill, but Boxer said she would push to have it in the compromise measure.

The federal loans would be available through the Environmental Protection Agency to supplement taxable bond financing and investments by public private partnerships for water infrastructure projects such as dams, levees, and water treatment plants that cost at least $20 million. The loans could be secured by P3s, local and state governments, tribal agencies, and state financing authorities.

A coalition of municipal and water groups, including the American Water Works Association, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities, is urging the committee to include the WIFIA program in the final bill.

State revolving loan fund programs are vital, the coalition said earlier this week in a letter to members of the conference committee, but are rarely able to support large water infrastructure projects.

“WIFIA loans will be repaid entirely from local rates and charges, maintaining full local responsibility for water infrastructure development but creating a mechanism to provide lower cost capital and promote innovations in project finance and delivery,” the group said in a letter to conferees earlier this week. “If a utility can save just two percentage points on the interest rate for a 30-year loan, that results in a savings of 25% in the financing costs of a project.”

Congress has not passed a federal water infrastructure funding bill since 2007.

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