Washington — For members of Congress who long to cut the ribbon on a new lock or dam or welcome ships into a newly deepened harbor, these are difficult times. During the Reagan administration, money for these projects, which are usually near to the hearts of lawmakers, has dwindled. The general construction account of the Army Corps of Engineers has dropped from $1.6 billion in 1981 to only $864 million this year. No major new project has been started.
The administration this week dampened hopes for 25 to 35 new water projects that the two houses are trying to attach to a catch-all spending bill. So strong is the Reagan administration opposition that it threatened a veto, even though the bill will also contain aid it sought for ``contra'' fighters in Nicaragua.
The Reagan approach to water projects has more than a touch of irony. With little ado, Mr. Reagan has succeeded where President Carter failed abysmally in his direct attack on water projects.
``It boggles my mind how the [Reagan] administration has been able to carry that off,'' says Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona, who like many fellow Westerners is a supporter of water projects.
When the Carter administration announced a ``hit list'' of projects it opposed, ``Republicans and Democrats united and blew him out of the water,'' says Senate DeConcini. The backlash against Mr. Carter was ``devastating'' among his own Democrats, according to the senator, who adds, ``I'm not sure he ever recovered from that.''
Reagan, meanwhile, has escaped harsh criticism. Unlike Carter, Westerner Reagan has never taken a hard line against dams, locks, and harbor improvements. The Republican has even requested money for selected projects in his budgets.
All new projects have been snagged, however. The Reagan administration is insisting that localities pay a bigger share of the project costs and that users pay fees, ideas that were also offered by the Carter administration.
The Senate appropriations bill that includes water projects bowed to the Reagan wishes by requiring cost-sharing for the projects funded. That is not enough, says Edwin Dale, a spokesman for the administration's Office of Management and Budget. ``We want to get an agreement for permanent reform.''
Mr. Dale says Congress should either drop the water projects in the current bill or make what he called a ``gentlemen's agreement'' among leaders to pass a new law requiring cost-sharing.
The threat of a veto comes at a time when some members of Congress are prepared to fight hard for the long-delayed projects. Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R) of Oregon, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has vowed to keep the projects in the bill, despite the veto threat. ``He's not convinced the President will veto'' the bill, an aide says.
One group that is pleased with the President's stand on water projects is one normally far away from the President's camp. Environmentalists see the White House insistence on cost-sharing as a way to halt projects they find harmful.
The 35 proposed projects would cost an estimated $1.2 billion in the House bill, while the Senate proposes 35 projects at $1.4 billion.