Senate approves Coast Guard spending bill

By:  Hal Bernton
Source: The Seattle Times

The Senate on Friday gave unanimous approval to a Coast Guard spending bill that includes an expansion of oil-spill-response requirements in Puget Sound and reforms to a multibillion Coast Guard contracting program sought by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

Senate passage of the spending bill also could set the stage for congressional approval of a sweeping overhaul of federal fishery-safety laws that are contained in a companion bill approved by the House.

Cantwell "strongly supports the fishing-safety legislation," and she will try to have it included in a final bill that would emerge from a joint House-Senate conference, said Katharine Lister, a Cantwell spokeswoman.

Cantwell is chair of a Senate subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Coast Guard and fisheries, but for the past four years she had been unable to gain passage of a Coast Guard spending bill. Some Republican senators had objected to certain provisions and pursued tactics that would have required a difficult floor fight to gain passage.

In recent days, a compromise deal was struck to make changes to the bill.

Senate Republicans, for example, objected to a provision that would have allowed the Pacific Northwest pollock fleet to replace aging vessels because the provision was unrelated to Coast Guard spending. This measure was dropped in the final bill approved by the Senate, according to Lister, but Cantwell will attempt to get it restored in the conference committee.

The bill also seeks to improve spill response in Puget Sound, where 600 oil tankers and 3,000 oil barges carry about 15 billion gallons of oil to refineries, according to Cantwell. Current rules do not require the positioning of oil-spill-response equipment in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but that will change if the bill becomes law.

This bill also includes a provision that bans the use of private contractors to manage acquisitions. Cantwell says that a 25-year, $24 billion program to replace the Coast Guard's aging fleet has had major cost overruns, and that the legislation is intended to give the Coast Guard more oversight on the contracting process.