WASHINGTON – The U.S. House Natural Resources Committee today overwhelmingly approved legislation to allow construction of a new $700 million bridge crossing the St. Croix River near Stillwater. The measure can now reach the House floor for a vote, although none has yet been scheduled.
Congressional approval is required to replace the aging lift bridge because the St. Croix River is protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, authored by former DFL Sen. Walter Mondale, which generally prohibits significant new construction around protected stretches of river.
Although the bill was voted out of committee by a bipartisan 30-14 margin, there were moments of heated debate as some Democratic members of the panel took potshots at the bill’s sponsor, Republican Congresswoman and presidential candidate Michele Bachmann.
Several members falsely claimed that the bill to authorize a new bridge constituted an earmark, which Bachmann has long rallied against. In fact, Congress has not appropriated any funds for the bridge, which is being paid for with regular state and federal highway funds from Minnesota and Wisconsin.
“To depart from these protections for the sake of one giant earmark, and it is giant, this is gargantuan, humongous, I’m not sure what adjective to apply, is a terrible precedent,” said New Jersey Democrat Rush Holt,
But Utah Republican Rob Bishop argued that a lengthy stakeholder approval process, as well as the support from the top elected officials on both sides of the river, meant that there should be no reason why the measure should languish in the House any longer.
“The people on the ground who live here in this area, this is what they request, this is their consensus and it had been worked out by all the stakeholders in the past,” said Bishop.
Today’s hearing speeds the way for final approval of the bridge. Bachmann’s original legislative language was struck from the bill and substituted with identical language introduced in the Senate by DFL Sen. Amy Klobuchar. That means the House and Senate won’t have to go into extra rounds of negotiation to reconcile the two bills.
Klobuchar’s companion Senate bill still requires a committee hearing before it can move to the Senate floor for a vote.
In a statement, Bachmann expressed satisfaction that the bill had passed through the committee and urged the House and Senate to pass it.
“We cannot delay this project further or costs will continue to rise and safety could be compromised as the current bridge continues to age,” said Bachmann.
If the bill passes both chambers of Congress, it will represent the most significant piece of legislation authored by Bachmann to become law since she entered the House in 2007.