Bipartisanship on Water Projects in Senate Spurred by Freedom to Fish Act

Amy Harder
National Journal

The senior energy aide to Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader from the coal state of Kentucky, was praised last week by one of the Senate’s top environmentalists, Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. The compliment seems unusual amid the hyper-partisanship that’s now the norm in Washington, but when put into context it makes sense.

The staffs of Boxer, McConnell, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Environment and Public Works ranking member David Vitter, R-La., have worked collaboratively over the past few months on a water-infrastructure bill. Last Wednesday afternoon, right after the bill passed with an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote of 83-14, Boxer and Vitter took to the floor to thank staffers for the long nights they had logged in the Capitol.

“There is one person, and that is Neil Chatterjee, and I hope I do not ruin his career by thanking him,” Boxer said on the floor, implying with a hint of humor that an environmentalist thanking a top staffer to a conservative Republican might not look so great to McConnell, who is up for reelection next year. “He helped us greatly just to know the lay of the land,” Boxer said of Chatterjee. “He said: ‘This is where we have problems. This is where we can come together.’ ”

Infrastructure issues are usually exceptions in a gridlocked Congress, and in this case McConnell had a very specific reason to work collaboratively with Boxer. The legislation that passed last week included a measure called the Freedom to Fish Act—sponsored by McConnell, Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, both Tennessee Republicans—that prevents the Army Corps of Engineers from installing barriers along part of the Cumberland River that would block people from fishing there. The river winds through Kentucky and Tennessee.

Even Paul, known on Capitol Hill for holding up bills and complaining about their costs, didn’t make a fuss over the water-infrastructure legislation, which authorizes $12.5 billion for projects to protect communities from floods and extreme weather. To be sure, he voted against it. But he didn’t raise a ruckus, and that’s largely because it included the Freedom to Fish Act.

Miller and other former Senate aides agreed that infrastructure issues, such as transportation and water bills, are in a category of their own and won’t provide much goodwill in other areas, including the pending nomination of Gina McCarthy to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Lawmakers and their staffs can compartmentalize political fights when necessary, which bodes well for bills like water infrastructure but not for those that could use a dose of bipartisanship. The fight over McCarthy—already protracted and partisan—pits McConnell’s aide Chatterjee and Vitter’s top staffer, Zak Baig, against Boxer’s staff director, Bettina Poirier.

“When highways come around, staff locked arms and everyone was rowing in the same direction,” said a former senior House leadership and Republican aide who would speak only on the condition of anonymity. “When you’re getting into the issues that Republicans are fighting over the McCarthy nomination, you’re not going to get bipartisan goodwill.”