Hawley's fight for nuclear waste exposure funds could derail defense bill
The Missouri Republican has vowed to block passage of the must-pass measure.
Dawn Chapman, who lives within miles of nuclear waste leftover from the World War II-era Manhattan Project, said she was locked in her bathroom fighting back tears when she learned this week that her most recent efforts to secure funding for families across the country potentially exposed to nuclear radiation had fallen short.
Chapman lives in St. Louis, Mo., near the West Lake Landfill, where nuclear waste from the Manhattan Project is stored.
She says her son and her husband both suffer from crippling autoimmune diseases from exposure to nuclear waste. Their care, she says, has required surgeries and long stints of extended rest.
Chapman has been fighting for years, alongside a coalition of moms living nearby, to win compensation for communities like hers across the country, and her most recent effort was aimed at securing funds to reauthorize the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), which provides funds for cases like her family's, in this year's giant National Defense Authorization Act.
On Wednesday night, Chapman learned that the funds, which the Senate included in its version of the defense bill which passed the chamber in June, would not make it into the final version of the must-pass defense policy bill that Congress is now poised to consider before the end of the year.
"We did everything we could and bent over backwards after taking on the burden of WWII and the uranium production," Chapman said. "We've already bent over backwards for this country, and for the door to be slammed, I do not understand."
The language stripped from the bill would have reauthorized a program that has helped families affected by nuclear waste across the country for over 30 years. Without reauthorization, the program will expire in the coming months.
The absence of RECA authorization could spell some major procedural trouble for the massive defense policy bill as senators rush to complete work on the legislation before leaving town for the holidays.
The defense bill, which among other things provides raises for the troops, usually gets broad support and move forward with relatively little procedural hijinks.
It won't go as smoothly this year. Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, who has championed RECA, has vowed to do whatever it takes to stall passage of the defense bill in retaliation against what he says is the decision by GOP party leaders to strip out the RECA funding authorization provision.
"It is an absolute travesty, a travesty that this amendment was stripped out of the final bill," he said. "These people all around the country are going to get nothing. People poisoned by their own nuclear waste and radiation are going to get nothing, and this is a deliberate choice on the part of congressional leadership."
Hawley's stalling tactics will start Thursday afternoon, when the Senate will be forced to take the first of several procedural votes on the defense bill because of Hawley's objection to speeding up the process to pass it.
It's not uncommon for provisions passed by one chamber of Congress to fall off of the massive defense policy bill when staff and lawmakers huddle to try to square the differences between the House and Senate bills, especially when those provisions have a high sticker price.
In this case, reauthorization for the nuclear waste exposure compensation program was removed from the final version because of the cost. The original legislation passed by the Senate was estimated to have cost over $150 billion dollars.
Lawmakers who were negotiating to keep the reauthorization included in this years defense bill sought to lower the price tag by lessening the number of years the expansion included and by seeking to offset its cost. Even after those offers, the price tag proved too much to stomach, especially for Republican leaders who are concerned about the nation's ballooning deficit.
Hawley has pointed the finger directly at Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and newly-minted House Speaker Mike Johnson for cutting the authorization.
No matter what procedural hurdles Hawley throws up in the coming days, the NDAA will almost certainly pass. It is a massive bill with many popular provisions. He, however, has vowed to vote against it.
"I will not stand by while this program expires and while thousands and thousands and thousands of people are told they don't matter, their lives don't matter, their pain and suffering doesn't matter by their government who inflicted it on them," Hawley said.
There are potentially other big bills that the reauthorization could be included on next year. It's unclear if inclusion would gain any traction with other lawmakers.
Chapman says she has not lost hope that she can eventually secure funds for to keep the program alive. With the bill out of the defense bill, she's vowed to "lace up her tennis shoes" and continue fighting.
"I'll be honest with you, we set it up to where we would just work our ass off until we get this and we will," Chapman said. "But how much harder to do they expect us to work all the while our people are dying of cancer and sick."
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