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With Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's veto threat in the rear-view mirror, Democratic legislative leaders tried to sound positive Monday about the state of water negotiations and laid out a framework for a potential package.

The key word is "framework," since all sides know that the multitude of water interest groups care about even the smallest of details, any of which could be enough to scuttle a deal.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, said they are "on the verge" of a deal. According to them, the working plan contains the following:

-- A $9.4 billion bond on a 2010 ballot, with restrictions on how much the state can borrow at any given time
-- A statewide goal to reduce water consumption 20 percent by 2020
-- Mandatory groundwater monitoring
-- Stricter water rights enforcement
-- A Delta Stewardship Council with the ability to authorize spending

Steinberg offered a football analogy to suggest how close leaders are to a deal: "It's first and 10 at the five-yard line, and we're neither the 49ers nor the Raiders." (To those who don't follow football, that's 95 percent of the way there with a high likelihood of closing. But don't overlook the Legislature's gift for incurring false start penalties and turning the ball over to special interests.)

Assembly Republican Leader Sam Blakeslee later said that water talks are closer than ever before -- a phrase oft-used in Capitol negotiations -- although that does not mean the Legislature should rush into a deal.

While Steinberg said earlier that "we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good - or great," Blakeslee offered something of a rejoinder, saying that the Legislature should not rush into passing flawed legislation that would be litigated for years to come.

Blakeslee said Republicans are waiting for Democrats to respond to concerns in four areas of the package: water conservation, water rights and enforcement, groundwater monitoring and governance of water issues. So far, he said, Democrats have offered counterproposals that only deal with the first two of the issues.

"Some of the responses in those two areas are, frankly, quite narrow and don't speak to our underlying concerns," Blakeslee said.

He said that the "Big Five" process of meetings between the governor and four legislative leaders is largely unnecessary, and that the deal must now be struck in the Legislature, with leaders searching for the right deal that will win enough votes to pass.

Without the threat of mass vetoes, the end of the legislative session or some other deadline artifice, it's not clear what in the next few weeks will force closure of a water deal that has been elusive for years.

Update 5:15: Here's a video of Democratic leaders talking to reporters about the status of the negotiations.

Video by The Bee's Hector Amezcua.


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