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A Georgia guide to Washington for 2018

Water, spy planes, farm subsidies and one infamous nuclear plant.

The race for governor may be the premier political story in Georgia this year, but the state’s lawmakers in Congress have their eyes trained on a bevy of other parochial issues in the nation’s capital.

There are marquee policy battles, for sure, but not far from the front burner for these representatives are their own reelection battles and the broader political map ahead of the November midterm elections. And then there is the outsized influence of President Donald Trump, who will help set the tone in a year that will put the GOP's grip on power to the test.

Here are some of the biggest Georgia issues the Atlanta Journal-Constitution will be watching in D.C in 2018:

Water, water everywhere

Georgia’s decades-old water war with Alabama and Florida is being fought on two main fronts in Washington: in the Supreme Court and on must-pass legislation on Capitol Hill. The high court will hear a landmark Georgia-Florida case on Jan. 8, which could move the needle in similar water tussles that have cost Georgia tens of millions of dollars over the years. Proxy battles have and will likely continue to play out in the halls of Congress as well. Lawmakers from Alabama and Florida in recent years have added language to fast-moving legislation that Georgia members argued would have undercut the state’s interests in the water fight. The Georgia delegation has been able to fend off those proposals in the past, but its fortunes could change if U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., steps down given his ailing health. Alabama Republican Richard Shelby would likely take his place atop the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, which would give him much more power to steer federal agencies in Georgia’s direction regarding its water usage.

More: U.S. Supreme Court to hear Georgia-Florida water rights case

Eye in the sky

Few issues have gotten the state’s delegation as worked up as the Air Force’s admission that it may abandon a decades-old surveillance aircraft based near Warner Robins. The military has long planned to retool its fleet of E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, or JSTARS –16 old 707s-turned-surveillance planes that have been used in the fight against the Islamic State and are housed exclusively in Georgia. But Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson recently suggested the Pentagon is weighing other long-term alternatives. Georgia lawmakers are on high alert, since losing the plane could make Robins Air Force base more vulnerable if Congress ever okays a new round of closures. The military is supposed to make an announcement on JSTARS’ future soon. What will its decision be, and will the delegation have the muscle to retaliate legislatively if the Pentagon chooses to pursue something else?

More: Georgia lawmakers prepare to battle for eye-in-sky plane

Rebuilding clout

When Roswell Congressman Tom Price stepped down in early 2017 to become President Trump’s health chief, Georgia lost its only House committee chairman and longest-serving House Republican. A year later, Lawrenceville Republican Rob Woodall is looking to reclaim Price’s old post as the head of the House Budget Committee, even as he contends with a bevy of Democratic challengers back home. Woodall has the seniority in D.C., but can he beat out a popular opponent in this GOP beauty contest? Woodall's move comes as the relatively young Georgia delegation more broadly looks to rebuild its clout after losing many of its most seasoned members in 2014. Several Republicans are vying for a position on the powerful tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, as well as a second slot on Energy and Commerce, which oversees energy, trade and health care issues, and the Armed Services panel.

More: Woodall angles for D.C. promotion while facing gaggle of challengers at home

The elephant in the room

With all 14 Georgia House seats up for grabs in November, reelection will not be far from anyone’s mind. No Peach State congressmen are openly talking about retirement, but several will face real competition at the ballot box for the first time in years. Galvanized by unexpected special election victories last year, Georgia Democrats are homing in on Republican-held suburban seats they think are flippable given Trump’s unpopularity with many college-educated voters. Karen Handel and Rob Woodall’s House seats in Atlanta’s northern suburbs are of particular interest to Democratic groups. Things will be quieter for Georgia U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Johnny Isakson, who aren’t up for reelection until 2020 and 2022, respectively.

More: Georgia Democrats think special election wins point to 2018 successes

Savannah pay day

There are very few issues in Washington that unite the state’s politically disparate congressional delegation beyond the aforementioned water rights battle. The Savannah port expansion is a key exception. The state has already ponied up its share of the money for the $973 million dredging project, which is currently under construction, but the feds have been much slower to match those funds. Trump’s first budget request last year represented a high-water mark in federal funding levels, but it was still only half of what boosters say is needed to keep the project on track. There’s some guarded optimism that Trump’s long-awaited infrastructure plan could help secure the project more money, but it’s unclear whether the effort gets off the ground this year. Lobbying efforts are centered on the Trump administration since the earmark ban blocks members of Congress from setting aside additional money for specific projects.

More: Earmark ban throws up hurdles for projects like Savannah port dredging

Vogtle lifeline

Georgia Republicans emphatically backed their party’s tax overhaul before the holidays, but the final bill left out a provision that was at the top of their wish list: help for the state’s troubled nuclear project. The builders of Plant Vogtle’s two new units say they need the federal government to deliver on $800 million in previously-promised tax credits for the project’s finances to work. Georgia utility commissioners similarly conditioned their approval of the project last month on Congress okaying the money. Help appears to be on the way. Senators introduced a bill that would extend the nuclear tax credits before the holiday break, and House Speaker Paul Ryan reportedly communicated that he plans to advance the legislation through his chamber soon. Georgia lawmakers say they're confident Congress can pass the bill this month, but with a packed to-do list it’s possible the issue could get lost in the shuffle.

More: Congress moves to aid Georgia’s troubled nuclear project

Health care funding

Georgia lawmakers have heard an earful from local hospitals and children’s health care providers in recent months for letting a pair of programs expire that advocates say could lead to millions less for PeachCare and safety net hospitals like Grady in Atlanta. Both programs are broadly popular and bipartisan, but lawmakers on Capitol Hill, distracted by larger fights over taxes and Obamacare, did not come to a bipartisan agreement on a way to pay for them. Lawmakers say they will push for a resolution in the new year, but some local stakeholders warn that damage has already been done.

More: No action from Congress as cuts loom for hospitals that care for poor

Georgia peaches. And cotton. And peanuts. 

A must-pass but under-the-radar item on Congress’ agenda this year is the farm bill, which not only divvies up crop subsidies but sets the rules of the road for food stamps. Georgia lawmakers have been positioning themselves for this battle for a while now: Atlanta Democrat David Scott and Tifton Republican Austin Scott have established senior roles for themselves on the House Agriculture committees, and Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue and U.S. Rep. Rick Allen have also recently joined their respective panels in order to look out for local crops such as cotton, peanuts, pecans and blueberries. They’re also hoping to leverage former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue’s position as secretary of agriculture to aid the region’s farming interests. Secretary Perdue will also be front-and-center if the Trump administration chooses to pursue major changes to welfare programs, since his department oversees food stamps. He has already signaled he’s open to major changes.

More: The cotton quandary: Subsidies forming the fabric of farmers’ lives?

Other issues to watch

There are other wildcards to watch for, too. Where do Georgia’s Democrats, particularly liberals Hank Johnson and John Lewis, line up in their party’s ongoing debate about whether to impeach Trump if they regain power in the 2018 midterms? Will the president’s picks for Georgia-based judicial positions remain stuck in the larger partisan stalemate over executive nominees? Will Georgia finally get its first national park at the Martin Luther King Jr. historic site in Atlanta?

And then there’s U.S. Sen. David Perdue. The Republican has seen his star rise considerably during the Trump administration’s first year, and he’s spent no small amount of political capital pushing for his merit-focused immigration bill to be included on any deal over the Dream Act. The next few weeks will be a major test of his newfound clout.

More: David Perdue looks to Democrats while selling immigration bill

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About the Author

Tamar Hallerman is The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Washington correspondent, covering Congress, federal agencies and other government activities that impact Georgia.