Propelled by an 11th-hour compromise and one last piece of legislative legerdemain by Sen. Russell B. Long (D-La.), the waterway toll bill was passed - again - by the Senate last night and sent - again - to the House, in a final race against adjournment.
Positioned this time as a rider to a bill on bingo games, the watereay legislation, which would impose a user charge on barge lines hauling freight on federally maintained inland waterways, seemed likely to win House passage and move on to the White House before the 95th Congress calls it quits Saturday.
If that happens, the waterway bill will become a waterway law. For the Carter administration - in a turnabout that made possible the compromise bill the Senate passed last night - has agreed to the legislation even though it lacks a provision the president last summer called a perequisite to his approval.
Last night's voice vote marked the third time the Senate has passed a waterway fee bill.
The previous two versions though, ran into hopeless parliamentary and political snares. Last night's bill was a compromise version worked out last weekend by congressional staff aides, administration lobbyists and the barge industry's lawyers.
When the negotiators had agreed on their compromise, they realized that the plan needed a vehicle to carry it to final passage this year. If the compromise were introduced now as a new bill, they knew, it would simply die in the chaos that surrounds the last week of a Congress.
The negotiators took their problem to Long, who is famous for finding last-minute vehicles for favored amendments. "I've always got a few little bills back in the office," Long said and he found one. He made the waterway compromise a rider to an obscure tax bill exempting certain bingo game operators from federal taxation.
The compromise version of the waterway bill is roughly similar to the bill that passed the Senate in May.
It would establish a federal tax on the diesel fuel barges barges burn to pay part of the federal government's expenditures for waterway construction and maintenance.
As a sweetener to the barge industry, it contains, as well, authorization for consturction of Lock and Dam 26, near Alton, Ill., the 26th barge facility down the Mississippi from Minneapolis, a project dear to the hearts of the industry's leaders.
But the compromise does not contain a "capital recovery" clause, which would bring automatic increases in the waterway fee whenever the government's waterway spending increased. Last May the Carter administration had promised to veto any user charge bill that lacked this feature.
But the closer Congress got to adjournment, the more Transportation Secretary Brock Adams realized that insistence on "capital recovery" was a major obstacle to passage.
Adams decided that the administration would do better to get the credit for establishing some waterway fee than to stand firm and get nothing. Early this fall Adams convinced the White House that compromised made sense and authorized his aides to get down to hard bargaining with the bargemen.
The barge industry did well for itself in the final negotiations. Barge operators will pay about $40 million in 1980, when the fee takes effect, and about $100 million annually after it reaches its maximum rate in 1985, while the government will spend $432 million on the Alton facility and more than $500 million annually on other waterway work. Still, some factions of the industry held out to the end against paying a cent for their use of the waterways.
On the other side, environmental groups and the railroad industry, the barge lines' arch competitor, complained that the compromise was a giveaway to the barge operators.
Under prodding from aides to Long, Adams and Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), the orginal sponsor of the waterway toll bill, both sides finally agreed that the compromise was the best they could do.
The waterway bill seemed once more to be cruising on course.