Flood of back room activity on drought legislation

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Congress leaves town today for its 4th of July recess without any agreement on California drought legislation. But that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been a water fight behind the scenes.

House members from the Central Valley met Wednesday with both California senators to discuss merging two separate drought bills -- one passed in the House and the other in the Senate. 

Lawmakers and staff agreed to keep mum about details of this latest meeting, but Tulare Republican Devin Nunes says they "laid out the principles, trying to move forward, trying to come to some agreement."

Traditionally, House and Senate leaders appoint members to a conference committee to meet to work out a compromise. That hasn't happened. In fact, the Senate bill authored by Dianne Feinstein and co-sponsored by Barbara Boxer, passed by unanimous consent without a hearing.

Negotiations between the House and Senate have continued behind closed doors. Nunes says, "someone’s gotta make some tough decisions here or people are going to run out of water."

The secret nature of negotiations got the ire of minority House Democrats from Northern California who complain they've been left out of the discussion on a topic vital to their districts.

Six lawmakers  - Democrats Jared Huffman, George Miller, John Garamendi, Jerry McNerney, Doris Matsui, and Mike Thompson - sent a letter this week to California's two senators, saying their constituents are "rightly concerned about a closed-door approach that picks winners and losers amid California’s statewide drought, and they deserve a public discussion of the merits of the legislation being considered.”

Those northern lawmakers say provisions in the House bill to store water and move it south will hurt farmers and fisherman in their part of the state. Congressman Huffman asks what part of the House bill is worth including? "The overturning of state water law? The ending of a hundred year federal precedent of deference to the states? The undoing of prior federal legislation?" 

The tension inspired Senator Barbara Boxer to pick up the phone Tuesday night to assure the disgruntled Democrats that any compromise will not change environmental laws or benefit one stakeholder over another. Huffman says he was "gratified" by what he heard.
Discussions will continue over the 4th of July recess - including, according to Fresno Democrat Jim Costa, on the plane ride back to California, a flight shared by many of the Central Valley lawmakers.

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