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Anti-drought bill the talk of the California delegation

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— Beneath a placid surface, California lawmakers are furiously churning to keep an anti-drought bill afloat.

They’re counting votes, making tradeoffs and tinkering with language. They’re confronting singular political calculations like: Will a Lake Mead provision for Nevada, home state of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, cause problems with other Democrats upstream in Colorado?

And, no mean feat, they are meeting.

For an hour Wednesday morning, half-a-dozen House Democrats convened privately with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to discuss her anti-drought legislation. Tellingly, the Northern California Democrats entered the meeting voicing caution — Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., echoed others in saying parts of Feinstein’s bill were “problematic” — but they exited smiling.

“It was a great meeting,” Thompson said afterward. “She has made changes that alleviate some of our concerns.”

Feinstein usually keeps her cards close to the chest, saying Wednesday only that “this was a private meeting and I'd like to keep it at that.” Her third floor office in the Hart Senate Office Building, though, has become the go-to spot for California water talks of late.

Earlier this year, House Republicans from the San Joaquin Valley trooped over for an extended private chat with the state’s senior senator. The Republicans, from freshman Rep. David Valadao to House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, shepherded an anti-drought bill through the House on largely a party line vote in early February.

The House bill limits part of a landmark 1992 law that directed more water to protect the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. It removes wild-and-scenic protections from a half mile of the Merced River in order to potentially expand McClure Reservoir, lengthens federal irrigation contracts to 40 years and makes it easier to move water around the state.

The far-reaching House bill can’t get through the Democratic-controlled Senate. The more modest measure introduced by Feinstein and her California colleague, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, in turn, won’t satisfy the GOP-controlled House.

Feinstein’s immediate balancing act now is to modify her 28-page bill enough to secure the five Republican Senate votes probably needed to reach the 60-vote threshold for ending a filibuster, all while not alienating Democrats. Once through the Senate, the legislation will be hammered into its final form in a House and Senate conference committee, though a lot of the deal-making could be done before.

“We’re on the same boat,” Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., said Wednesday. “She’s really done a remarkable job of bringing people and the agencies together.”

Some of the balancing acts ahead deal with policy, like the Senate bill language increasing Colorado River storage in Lake Mead. Others deal with money. The Senate bill lures some other western lawmakers by boosting drought relief and water project funding. This same potential funding increase, though, turns off GOP fiscal hawks.

Other tactical considerations include whether the bill is better off if it deals only with California, and whether its provisions should be permanent or temporary. Departing the meeting Wednesday, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., stressed that while “it’s encouraging, we’re not there on all the parts yet,” and other lawmakers agreed, including those who clash with Miller on some specifics.

“We continue to work every day to move it along,” said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif.

This article was originally published on the McClatchy website on May 7, 2014.

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