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Senate budget bill nearly quadruples funding for Ohio dam project

OlmstedDAMPROJECT.jpg

The Olmsted Locks and Dam is under construction between Illinois and Kentucky, about 17 miles upstream from the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. (US Army Corps of Engineers)

Buried in the Senate bill to end the partial government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling is a provision to nearly quadruple funding for an Ohio River dam project, an allocation slammed as “disgraceful” by Republican Sen. John McCain.

The dam project, which was approved in 1988, has drastically soared over its original budget of $775 million, and the new bill will raise its funding to nearly $3 billion.

Supporters of the project, called the Olmsted Locks and Dam, say it is necessary to reduce bottlenecking at the crossing of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Despite being approved over 20 years ago, the project is still described as “under construction between Illinois and Kentucky” on the Army Corps of Engineers’ website.

McCain told Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren Wednesday he had “never even heard of” the project and questioned why it had been included in the bipartisan plan to end the budget crisis.

“They stuck in some stuff which, of course, they couldn’t have gotten through a regular legislative process,” McCain said. “That is disgraceful.”

The Senate approved the legislation late Wednesday by an 81-18 vote. The House subsequently followed suit with a 285-144 vote, with 87 Republicans in favor and 144 against. President Obama signed the bill into law early Thursday.

But Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, tells Fox News she put the dam funding in the budget deal because "there is no money” to fund the project otherwise. The House previously approved $1.7 billion for the project.

Feinstein, D-Calif., says if the dam was not funded, all barge traffic, a significant source of commerce on the Ohio River, would be suspended. She says the funding was included in the budget bill because it is the only spending bill moving. 

“It's a series of locks on a dam. If it isn't funded, it shuts down,” Feinstein said. “It's in the public good.”

Still, the inclusion of the funding could inflame tensions on the Hill over spending, and signal that Washington's habits of slipping in local favors in must-pass bills die hard.

McCain said that the dam project and other measures were indeed added in without warning.

“We didn’t find about these small anomalies until about two hours ago,” he said on Fox News. 

Steve Ellis, of Taxpayers for Common Sense, criticized the appropriation as "parochial pork," noting that the amount approved is well above the House-approved level of $1.7 billion.

“While this could be considered business as usual, it is shocking that with the country teetering on the edge of default a lawmaker would try to pull a fast one on the American people," he said in an email statement.

Fox News' Chad Pergram contributed to this report.

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