FIRST ON 3: White House Response to Criticism on Savannah Harbor - Local news, weather, sports Savannah | WSAV On Your Side

FIRST ON 3: White House Response to Criticism on Savannah Harbor Deepening

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Laying the blame squarely on a divided Congress, the White House fired back Wednesday at criticism it had failed to include funding for the deepening of the Savannah Harbor in the release of its 2014 budget.

The $652 million project is viewed as critical to local commerce to allow larger cargo ships into the Georgia Ports Authority on the Savannah River. Vice President Joe Biden promised White House support of the plan in September, "come hell or high water." President Obama reiterated his support on a visit to the NBC Tonight Show while talking about creating jobs through infrastructure projects.

Members of Georgia's congressional delegation issued blistering statements upon the budget's release Tuesday, calling the White House hypocritical for not including money for the deepening in its budget proposal.

Contacted Wednesday, the White House says the responsibility lies with the same members of Congress who went on attack the day before.

Congress has not reauthorized the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) in seven years, which prevents the project from moving forward, a White House official told WSAV News 3 Wednesday. The official called the stall to the harbor deepening an authorization problem (an act of congress), not a budget problem.

The White House official also indicated the president supports the WRDA bill's quick passage.

Within minutes of the release of the president's budget Tuesday, Georgia Senators Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, both Republicans, issued a joint statement ripping the White House.

"Having wasted this opportunity and broken their promises to the state, we call on the administration to allow this project to move forward and to get out of the way of the people of Georgia. We are tired of waiting," the prepared statement read.

Almost immediately, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, also a Republican, announced the state would use $200 million in funds to begin the project on its own. Isakson and Chambliss immediately issued statements of praise for the move.

Members of Congress often issue immediate statements upon the release of major proposals by the White House, however, Tuesday's statements grabbed immediate regional attention because of the importance of the project to the local economy.

The president's budget, on the other hand, has already been widely dismissed on Capitol Hill and is not expected to even garner a hearing in Congress. December's budget deal brokered by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., set spending levels into 2015.

Even many Democrats in Washington acknowledge the 2014 White House budget is meant to do no harm to vulnerable Democrats facing reelection in November.

News 3 also contacted a spokesman for the Corps of Engineers in Washington today.  Gene Pawlick told us that WRDA is the authorization vehicle for projects that the Corps of Engineers wants to undertake.  He says versions of WRDA have been passed by both the House and the Senate, but now a conference committee from both chambers has to decide on a final bill.

He said WRDA is not the funding vehicle per se, that after authorization the funding comes in annual appropriations from Congress.

The president's budget includes a line item of about $1.5 million dollars for pre-construction and design. While it's acknowledged that the president's budget are his recommendations to Congress on what should be funded in the coming fiscal year, Pawlick says often congressional appropriation bills include funding items that were not in the president's budget and that are ultimately signed.

When reached today in Washington, Isakson called the line item a "cog" in the wheel. He says WRDA, when passed, will authorize a final cost of port deepening to $652 million dollars from an original version years ago of just over $200 million.

Isakson also said he expects WRDA will pass and that the money "will be there."  While the Senator told us the line item is just a placeholder for federal money, he said there is still an issue with the language used in the line item. 

Senator Isakson told us that he and others in the Georgia delegation were under the impression that the budget deal (what's known as the Omnibus bill or the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014) reached in December covered the issue in terms of Congress indicating the project was "in construction" and that construction funds needed to be listed as such in the president's budget. 

Isakson saying the way the line item in listed the budget is listed is important and can hold up the project.

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