Georgia reps see things to like, dislike in federal spending deal

Georgia’s top federal priorities would largely be shielded from any major budget cuts in the catchall government spending bill the House is expected to pass Wednesday.

The Port of Savannah’s dredging project is on track to receive tens of millions of new dollars, as are several types of aircraft flown out of the state’s military bases. Money would flow to rebuild portions of Georgia devastated by recent extreme weather under the $1.16 trillion legislation, while Congress would stay out of the state’s long-running water feud with Florida and Alabama — at least for now.

But the state would lose out on a substantial increase in money for the Atlanta-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as a last-minute effort to extend a tax credit designed to aid the stakeholders of a troubled nuclear power project near Augusta.

In other words, there’s plenty for Georgia’s 16 members of Congress to like — and not like — as they mull whether to support the 1,665-page bipartisan bill that would keep the federal government open for the next five months.

“Everything that we like in there, it’s not as much as what we should be spending for defense, for border security, for the Port of Savannah,” said U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville. “But this is such a complex issue.”

Defense, water interests

The spending bill would fund every corner of the federal government, from nuclear weapons to school nutrition programs, for the remainder of the 2017 fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have touted the bill for allocating an extra $15 billion above last year’s levels to fight terrorism in places such as Syria and Iraq.

The funding deal would also spend $8.2 billion to acquire 74 more F-35 Joint Strike Fighter planes, as well as money for 17 additional C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft, both of which are built in part in Marietta by Lockheed Martin.

In a victory for Moody Air Force Base near Valdosta, the bill would bar the Pentagon from retiring the aging A-10C Warthog aircraft, which provides close-air support and is eventually expected to be replaced by the F-35.

The more than 100,000 active-duty service members stationed in Georgia are slated to receive a pay increase of more than 2 percent under the bill.

Georgia lawmakers worked behind the scenes to strip out proposed language from U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., that they said would tip the balance of power in Georgia’s decades-long water battle with its western and southern neighbors.

Shelby, a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, wanted to direct the Justice Department to assess "all federal water contract violations in multi-state water basins since 2005." It's similar to language that prompted a Georgia revolt when it appeared in the last comprehensive spending bill in 2015. Georgia lawmakers beat back that request nearly two years ago, and they were able to do so again this time around.

The new bill would also allocate $42.7 million for ongoing work to deepen the Port of Savannah from 42 feet to 47 feet, the same amount of money the Obama administration suggested last year. Backers of the expansion are optimistic the port will be able to secure even more money through a broader account at the Army Corps of Engineers designated for water projects, despite a recent increase in the project's cost and time estimates.

Nuclear, other help

A last-minute bid by power companies and some lawmakers from Georgia and South Carolina to attach to the spending bill a tax bonus for the stakeholders of the sputtering Plant Vogtle nuclear expansion project was ultimately rebuffed.

The lawmakers were looking to extend the deadline for an existing production tax credit that would provide economic incentives for new nuclear power plants. The current system is designed to reward units that come online before 2020, but Westinghouse's recent bankruptcy is expected to push the time frame beyond that for new units at Vogtle and V.C. Summer in South Carolina. One Capitol Hill staffer estimated that Vogtle could earn as much as $2 billion in incentives should the deadline be extended.

The new hope, according to three Georgia congressional staffers who were not authorized to speak on the record, is to have the same provision hitch a ride onto a tax overhaul or other legislation later this year.

Georgia is expected to qualify for a portion of $400 million allocated for natural disaster recovery efforts after severe storms tore through South Georgia in January.

The Atlanta-based CDC, meanwhile, would receive a small funding increase under the bill, but some of that money would be taken from an internal account that provides Georgia roughly $20 million a year for things such as immunization programs. A notable portion of the funding increase at the CDC would go to fighting the opioid crisis that's gripped the nation. Nearly 550 Georgians died from such prescription opioid overdoses in 2015, according to the Georgia Prevention Project.

Some Georgia researchers praised Congress’ proposed $2 billion increase to the National Institutes of Health, which they said would likely filter down to local research institutions in the form of grants.

“We’ve had a number of large grants that have been held up,” said Jonathan Lewin, the executive vice president for health affairs at Emory University. “We’re very confident that with the funding now approved, these grants and other proposals we have that are pending will be funded.”

After the House takes up the spending bill, the Senate is expected to do the same Thursday, sending it along to President Donald Trump’s desk before Friday, when the current round of federal funding expires.

As of Tuesday afternoon, many of Georgia’s U.S. House members said they were undecided on whether to support the legislation.

Some Democrats, including U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson of Lithonia, indicated they were inclined to support it, especially since it denied Trump money for many of the top items on his policy wish list, including a border wall.

“It makes me feel good about the direction of the country that the Democrats and the Republicans could come together and work out a budget for the remainder of the 2017 fiscal year,” he said.

The legislation is technically 11 individual spending measures combined into one massive bill. That approach has some lawmakers, particularly Republicans, incensed that they are being given an unsavory take-it-or-leave-it choice.

“We can’t just keep going in this direction,” Loudermilk said. “We’ve got to get back to regular order and vote on every piece of legislation (individually), not going at the last minute and combining it all.”

Leaders, on the other hand, say the legislation is better than the alternatives: a shutdown or another stopgap, which leaves agencies’ funding plans on autopilot.

“The fact that everybody has some things that they’re crowing about, that’s not a sign of a failed negotiation, that’s the sign of what a negotiation is supposed to be in divided government,” said U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville.


TOTAL: $1.16 trillion

$551 billion for defense

$519 for nondefense

Includes $93.5 billion to specifically fight terrorism, including the Islamic State

Includes $8.1 billion for weather-related emergencies such as tornadoes, floods and fires

Includes $15 billion in extra border funding at the request of President Trump