WASHINGTON — Mayor Eric Garcetti, on his first trip to the nation's capital as Los Angeles' chief executive, isn't letting Washington's preoccupation with budget deficits get in the way of his push for federal approval of a $1-billion project to restore the Los Angeles River.
In meetings on Capitol Hill and at the White House, Garcetti lobbied officials to support a project that is more than double the cost of the one recommended by the Army Corps of Engineers. He even got about 15 minutes in the Oval Office with President Obama, who brought up the river project.
But winning congressional support for such an ambitious project in an era of federal austerity could be like the recent kayak ride Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), who backs the restoration, and his 11-year-old son took on a stretch of the river: "A lot of rocks. A lot of hazards. And a lot of spills."
Garcetti's lobbying comes as the Republican-controlled House has pushed to cut federal spending and as the Army Corps faces a $60-billion-plus backlog of projects awaiting funding.
"You can potentially risk not getting anything if you reach too high," said Steve Ellis, vice president of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Still, this could be one of those projects that benefits from California lawmakers' rise in seniority.
Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, which authorizes water projects; Sen. Dianne Feinstein, another Democrat, chairs the appropriations subcommittee, which helps decide what water projects are funded and how much they receive.
"Of course I'm going to fight hard for what the people in L.A. want," Boxer said in an interview Tuesday.
Feinstein, however, said Los Angeles officials may need to find a middle ground with the Army Corps.
"It may well be that a compromise is the way to go," she said. "But the pressures here are enormous for that money."
Garcetti said he still planned to push for the $1-billion project, even if it takes longer to complete.
"I feel very optimistic about our chances," he said Tuesday.
Garcetti was meeting with Democratic and Republican lawmakers in an attempt to build bipartisan support for the project, including inviting House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) to Los Angeles for a tour of the river.
Los Angeles officials are seeking to transform a stretch of the river between downtown and Griffith Park into a civic attraction offering recreational opportunities and restored habitat. With their congressional allies — Democratic Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard of Downey, Xavier Becerra of Los Angeles and Schiff — they are working to persuade the Army Corps to go with a $1.08-billion restoration project, with federal taxpayers and the city sharing equally in the costs.
The corps, in a preliminary staff recommendation, has called for a $453-million project, with the federal government picking up about 30% of the tab.
A final recommendation is expected to be submitted in late spring to Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Bostick, the Army Corps' commanding general and chief of engineers. The recommendation then will go to Congress, where it would be difficult to change the recommendation.
Garcetti said he was aware of Washington's fiscal constraints but noted that funding for the project would be stretched out over a number of years.
"We don't want to look back a generation from now and say, 'Oh, another incomplete project in L.A. again,' " he said.