WASHINGTON — Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California on Thursday pulled the plug on secret, high-stakes negotiations over a water bill for her drought-plagued state, saying she and fellow lawmakers will try again next year.
Feinstein’s unexpected move ends, for now, what had become an increasingly contentious fight over ambitious drought-fighting legislation whose details few people have seen.
“You’ve got to work with people to get something done,” Feinstein said in an interview. “I’m going to put together a first-day bill for the next Congress, and it can go through the regular order.”
Right up until Thursday, Feinstein and Republicans in the House of Representatives had been pushing hard to beat the Capitol Hill clock, as the lawmakers and their staffs swapped text language and haggled over details in hopes of completing a bill before a scheduled Dec. 11 adjournment. The negotiators had taken care of “a lot of low-hanging fruit,” said Rep. Doug LaMalfa, a Republican from Butte County.
Now, the clock will be reset when the 114th Congress convenes, with Republicans controlling both the Senate and the House.
“We’ve come a long way,” said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare. “These type of things happen in negotiations.”
Nunes, who wrote the original version of the bill eventually passed by the House in February, said “we’ll continue to try to work together” and that “we appreciate that Sen. Feinstein has negotiated in good faith.”
Nunes also said he and his fellow House Republicans wouldn’t stop trying to accomplish water legislation this Congress. With time so short, that long-shot effort would probably require trying to add language to a must-pass spending bill, a dicey proposition for anything ambitious and controversial.
Responding to the state’s devastating drought, the GOP-controlled House passed a far-reaching bill in February on a largely party line 229-191 vote.
Introduced by freshman Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, and drawing largely on a bill previously introduced by Nunes, the House bill rolls back a landmark 1992 law that directed more water to protect the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The bill removes wild-and-scenic protections from a half mile of the Merced River, and it authorizes new water-storage projects on locations that include the Upper San Joaquin River, among other provisions.
The House measure also repeals the expensive San Joaquin River restoration effort, which has cost more than $100 million to date and is anticipated to go higher. The bill replaces the restoration plan with something more modest.
The legislation was passed without the usual committee hearing and markup, as House members insisted time was of the essence.
“We have to make sure the crisis we’re facing today is addressed,” Valadao said at the time. “If the other side has a solution, bring it to the table. I’m happy to negotiate.”
Feinstein countered in May with a slimmed-down bill passed through the Senate by unanimous consent, also without a committee hearing. Ever since, Democrats who voted against the 68-page House bill, and whose congressional districts span part of the 1,100 square-mile delta, have complained they have been shut out of the subsequent negotiations, in which Feinstein has taken the lead role.
“She’s doing the bidding of a very small group of people,” Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, said Thursday, prior to Feinstein’s decision becoming public. “This is just money and politics talking.”
In particular, Miller and other critics have contended that the legislation has appeared to be getting written for the benefit of the 600,000-acre Westlands Water District, whose general manager, Tom Birmingham, has been in Washington, D.C., this week for potential negotiations.
A Westlands representative declined to comment Thursday.
Miller called the exclusive negotiations “outrageous,” and the closed-door sessions prompted, in recent days, a flurry of negative newspaper editorials that Feinstein said Thursday were based on “misimpressions.” Draft copies of the legislation, some marked “confidential draft language, do not distribute,” were beginning to circulate on Capitol Hill in recent days, further prompting alarms in some Northern California circles.
“It is good news Sen. Feinstein has indicated she wants to work with all interests to craft a bill and not circumvent the regular committee process,” environmental activist Patricia Schifferle said in an email. “To that end, Sen. Feinstein needs to release a copy of her current draft, the agency comments and issues that remain unresolved so everyone can comment.”
Feinstein’s California Democratic colleague, Sen. Barbara Boxer, has played second fiddle on the secret water talks, saying in public only that she thought a consensus bill was possible. Gauging the enthusiasm of Boxer’s support has been complicated by the fact that a number of her traditional environmentalist allies are unhappy with the bill efforts.
“I’m really glad that Sen. Feinstein is taking the time to get more feedback on her updated legislation,” Boxer said. “As I have said from the beginning of this process, we need to hear from all the stakeholders who rely on a fair allocation of California’s water supply.”