Stillwater bridge plan faces hurdle in the Houseby Brett Neely, Minnesota Public Radio
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. House is expected to debate today and vote Thursday on a bill to allow a new $700 million, freeway-style bridge across the St. Croix River.
Both the bill's sponsor, Republican Michele Bachmann, and its biggest opponent, Democrat Betty McCollum, are part of a lobbying effort to sway the final outcome, which could end decades of debate over what to do about the aging Stillwater Bridge.
After languishing for months, House leaders announced on Monday night that the bill would be up for a vote this week, just days after Gov. Mark Dayton threatened to pull state funding for the bridge project if Congress didn't act by mid-March.
To speed the process, the bill will be considered under rules that require a two-thirds majority for passage, which means just 145 votes against could scuttle the measure.
Although confident the bill will have the votes to pass, Bachman said, "If the bridge vote does not pass, it will be because Rep. Betty McCollum is working to stop it."
McCollum has thrown sand in the wheels of the process for months, arguing that the proposed bridge is far too large and expensive for the area.
But she said if the bill fails, it won't be her fault.
"It's Michele Bachmann's bridge bill, Michele Bachmann didn't want to work on compromise. Michele Bachmann is in the majority," McCollum said. "She got them to schedule the vote. She was off campaigning for president for nine months."
Wisconsin Democratic Congressman Ron Kind's district sits on the other side of the St. Croix River. He backs a new bridge and said he has mostly been trying to untangle the issues for his fellow members.
"Obviously it's very parochial, it only affects Wisconsin and Minnesota and the rest of Congress hasn't been involved in this and they're trying to come up to speed, "what is this about, does this involve new federal money?" Kind said. "And so those are the kinds of questions we're trying to answer."
Kind and other supporters say the bridge won't involve new federal money. It will be paid for by Minnesota and Wisconsin. But because the St. Croix River is protected, Congress does have to agree to exempt the bridge project from the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
And organizations for and against the bill are at work lobbying House members.
"We're talking to everybody from the most liberal Democrats to the most conservative Republicans. There are arguments on all sides of this issue that appeal to members of Congress, said Jim Bradley, director of government relations for the conservation group American Rivers, which opposes the planned bridge.
He is telling Democrats that the legislation would set a precedent weakening the main law that protects rivers.
Republicans get a different story.
Bradley tells them the nearly $700 million cost of the project is a budget buster that will prevent other bridges from getting the maintenance they need.
Another group opposed to the bridge, Taxpayers for Common Sense, is trying to appeal to Republicans' mistrust of federal power.
"It seems unique to us that Congress would be mandating to Minnesota and Wisconsin the type of bridge that they have to build if they want to move forward with this project," said Erich Zimmerman, a policy analyst with the group.
Dayton, a Democrat, also sent a letter to House Speaker John Boehner on Tuesday to inform that a new bridge is "desperately needed" and ask for Republican support.
Most observers say Boehner would only bring a bill to the floor if he knows he has the votes for it.
- Morning Edition, 02/29/2012, 7:40 a.m.