By Andy Sullivan
WASHINGTON, March 22 (Reuters) - As the U.S. government prepares for years of austerity, a bipartisan group of senators is aiming to give the agency that maintains ports and waterways extraordinary protection from budget cuts.
The Army Corps of Engineers, best known for its flood-protection role in hurricane-prone areas such as Louisiana, is also responsible for keeping the nation's ports and rivers open for cargo traffic.
Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously approved a bill on Wednesday that would prohibit Congress from cutting the Corps' budget unless lawmakers could muster a three-fifths vote. Such a hurdle is not required to cut funding at other agencies, from the Defense Department to the FBI.
The move to fence off Corps funding contrasts with the prevailing appetite for spending restraint in Congress.
"I've never seen anything like this," said Steve Ellis, an analyst at the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. "It's basically saying everything the Corps does is more important than anything else."
The bill apparently would not prevent the Corps from absorbing its share of the across-the-board "sequester" cuts that agencies will have to absorb in coming months. But it would protect the agency from the severe budget pressures that the government will face in coming years as tight spending caps take hold and Republicans push for further cuts to domestic programs.
The legislation was unveiled by Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer and Republican Senator David Vitter on Monday, two days before it was approved unanimously by the committee. It could come up for a vote on the Senate floor in April. Lawmakers in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives have not begun to draft their own version of the bill.
Backers of the legislation say it would protect Corps programs that create thousands of jobs and ensure that the agency will continue to pursue ambitious public-works projects.
The Army Corps plays a crucial role in Vitter's home state of Louisiana, where it is responsible for keeping open some of the nation's largest ports and building levees that protect low-lying areas from hurricanes and rising sea levels.
The Corps' defenses failed to protect New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when widespread levee failures led to flooding of the city. Since then, the Corps has spent about $14 billion to rebuild the system. The Corps also has been involved in efforts to help New Jersey and New York recover from Hurricane Sandy, which devastated that region last fall.
The funding measure is tucked into the Water Resources Development Act of 2013, a 284-page bill that authorizes billions of dollars worth of water-infrastructure projects, from flood control to environmental restoration.
Vitter staff members say the Corps' dredging operations are especially crucial, as too-shallow waterways can hurt commerce in the 30 states that rely on the Mississippi River system to ship cargo. The worst U.S. drought in a half century has threatened shipping on the river this past winter.
The bill would increase the Corps' dredging activities by ensuring that taxes levied on shipping companies for that purpose aren't used elsewhere. The harbor-dredging fund currently collects more than it spends, and the U.S. government has been using the surplus for other projects.
Vitter worries that other lawmakers could make up for the loss of the surplus harbor-dredging money by cutting other Corps projects.
"Currently the administration's standard of managing the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund is robbing Peter to pay Paul," he said in a statement.
A spokeswoman for Boxer, who represents California, did not respond to requests for comment. The Army Corps also declined to comment.
MOVE CALLED 'OFFENSIVE'
The Army Corps would apparently still be affected by the across-the-board "sequester" cuts that will pare government spending by $85 billion this year. The Senate bill also would not apply to the emergency spending that causes the Corps budget to fluctuate dramatically from one year to the next, so lawmakers would not be locked in to an artificially high level of spending after a disaster like Hurricane Katrina.
But the increased spending on harbor maintenance - and the heightened protections for other Corps funding - mean that other areas would have to be cut further to comply with the spending caps imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011, according to a Senate Democratic aide.
That would mean less money for energy research, education, veterans aid or other types of domestic spending.
One Republican budget analyst called the bill "offensive" and said it could establish a troublesome standard for other lawmakers seeking to protect their favored projects.
"Saying, 'You can't cut the Corps of Engineers budget,' is not practical in this Congress. It sets an interesting precedent for other agencies," said Jim Dyer, a former top Republican staff member on the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee.
Meanwhile, green groups that want the Corps to give greater consideration to environmental concerns are questioning why the agency should be immune from budget pressures.
"The Corps shouldn't be an anomaly when all other agencies are facing austerity measures," said George Sorvalis, who heads the National Wildlife Federation's water-resources program. (Editing by David Lindsey and Claudia Parsons)