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Big lock-and-dam bill passes without McCaskill's support

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Sen. Claire McCaskill (UPI file photo)

By AP/KWMU

St. Louis, MO – A massive water projects bill that would send millions of dollars to Missouri cleared the Senate overwhelmingly on Thursday, but without support from the state's junior senator.

Democrat Claire McCaskill said she voted against the $23 billion measure because of the way extra pet projects, or earmarks, were slipped into the bill during negotiations between the House and Senate.

"This isn't about the projects, this is about the process," McCaskill said on the Senate floor before the vote.

McCaskill had previously supported the measure, which includes $1.95 billion to replace seven locks on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers with new chambers that are twice as long. An additional $1.7 billion would target ecosystem restoration along the rivers.

Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., a major architect of the locks and dams portion of the bill, said modernizing the chambers is crucial to Midwestern farmers.

"For my constituents, this means jobs, trade competitiveness, reliable and affordable energy, drinking water and protection from floods which ruin property and kill people," Bond said.

The bill passed easily on an 81-12 vote, despite a veto threat from the White House. But the House and Senate have enough votes to override a presidential veto.

McCaskill conceded that her vote was painful because she supports most of the projects in the bill, particularly the upgrade to locks along the rivers. She voted for the bill earlier this year, when its estimated cost was about $14 billion.

But when the bill emerged from a House-Senate conference committee, its cost had ballooned by $9 billion. That including more than $800 million in about 20 last-minute special projects that were not in the separate bills passed originally.

McCaskill said she opposes earmarks that lawmakers include behind closed doors without publicizing them in advance or holding them to a separate vote.

"We need to stop the bad habit of ever putting projects in a conference report without the full affirmation and public airing that the House and Senate deliberations provide."

For more than a decade, farmers and barge operators have backed the lock upgrade plan as a way to speed the transport of grain shipments to Southern ports.

The entire project would take about 20 years to complete, creating thousands of new jobs in Missouri and Illinois.

Bond estimated that the locks project would create 48 million "man hours" of construction work.

Some taxpayer groups have called the locks upgrade wasteful, saying decreased barge traffic over the last decade doesn't justify billions to replace locks that are still functioning.

But Paul Rohde, a vice president for Waterways Council Inc., a lobbying group for shippers, port authorities and other river interests, said the bill "improves the usage of the most environmentally friendly, economically efficient mode of moving commodities."

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