WASHINGTON — The Republican-controlled House passed legislation Wednesday billed as a response to the California drought, but the measure is unlikely to go further in the face of a White House veto threat and opposition from the state's Democratic senators.
Still, the action highlights the growing interest on Capitol Hill in trying to do something about the water shortage, a potentially hot issue in this year's elections. Democratic lawmakers are calling for hearings and hurriedly drafting legislation of their own.
The House bill would, among other things, roll back environmental protections and halt restoration of a dried-up stretch of the San Joaquin River that is designed to revive salmon runs. It was approved on a largely party-line 229-191 vote.
Republicans blamed Washington policies for the water shortage, bringing photos of fish to the House floor to argue that fish were being put ahead of farmers.
"We have listened to the environmental left for 40 years, and this is where it's gotten us,'' said Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Elk Grove).
"Congress can't pass a bill to make it rain, but we can pass a bill to put an end to the water shortages that have been caused by misguided regulatory decisions," Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona) said.
Democrats responded by saying that the problem is lack of rain.
"It would be more productive for this body to join in a rain dance on the floor today than to pass this bill,'' said Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena). Rep. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove) warned that the measure would set off a new water war, saying it "steals what little water there is available'' from some and allocates it to others.
Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer have branded the bill political gamesmanship, and Gov. Jerry Brown has said it "falsely suggests the promise of water relief when that is simply not possible given the scarcity of water supplies.''
Feinstein and Boxer are drafting their own drought-relief measure.
The House bill, dubbed the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Emergency Water Delivery Act, was sponsored by all 15 California GOP congressmen.
It is similar to a Republican-written bill that passed the House in 2012 only to die in the Senate. Republicans are hoping the new bill will fare better.
The legislation, unveiled a few weeks ago at a Central Valley news conference featuring House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and brought to the House floor with unusual speed, was designed to help Republicans highlight the parties' differences on an issue that could be important in competitive California congressional races.
Environmental groups decried the measure as a "wholesale assault on California's environment, native fisheries, and the thousands of jobs that depend on healthy fisheries and rivers, while providing no durable solutions to effectively addressing California's water needs.''
The White House said if the bill makes it to President Obama's desk, his advisors will recommend a veto because it would, among other things, "disrupt decades of work that supports building consensus, solutions, and settlements that equitably address some of California's most complex water challenges.''