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House departure leaves radiation compensation fund in limbo

With the law expiring Friday, lawmakers who want to expand benefits are frustrated

Sen. Ben Ray Luján is pushing for a House vote on a Senate bill to expand the fund under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act that would compensate those harmed by radiation from America’s development of nuclear weapons.
Sen. Ben Ray Luján is pushing for a House vote on a Senate bill to expand the fund under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act that would compensate those harmed by radiation from America’s development of nuclear weapons. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House lawmakers left town Wednesday without extending the compensation fund under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act before a Friday deadline, as the lawmakers who want to greatly expand its coverage dig in against a simple extension.

Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., is pushing for a House vote on a bill from Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., that would expand the fund, which compensates those harmed by radiation from America’s development of nuclear weapons. Luján said that although the statutory deadline for RECA is Friday, people currently receiving benefits would still get them. But it would bar people who are currently eligible but haven’t applied to the program from applying after June 10, he said.

Luján floated the possibility of passing a short-term extension — one proposal would do so for six months — without the expansion language, buying advocates more time to secure votes. Another proposal would provide for a “clean” two-year extension.

“Whether there’s action or not by Friday, it does not mean that the fight stops,” Luján said Wednesday in an interview. “There will still be an effort to continue to provide certainty into this program going forward.”

Luján didn’t directly answer when asked whether expansion advocates would lose leverage if lawmakers pass a full two-year extension. Hawley, in an interview Wednesday, said they definitely would.

Hawley’s expansion bill would provide eligibility to a greater number of residents in Nevada, Utah and Arizona, as well as other states “downwind” of atomic testing: New Mexico, Colorado, Idaho and Montana. It would open the fund to residents of Guam, where people were exposed to tests in the Pacific Ocean, and veterans who cleaned up radioactive waste in the Marshall Islands.

It would also extend to workers who were employed after 1971, the current cutoff date, in uranium mines and mills, or who transported uranium ore. Finally, it would apply to people affected in the St. Louis area, where uranium was processed beginning in the 1940s.

Hawley said he opposes any sort of extension without language to expand compensation eligibility.

“That will not go through the Senate with my consent. I will force every possible procedural vote,” he said of a two-year extension bill. “I don’t think we have the votes for it in the House, but it will not pass this body.”

A six-month extension, he noted, would align with the appropriations process.

“So then what they say is, ‘This needs to go through the appropriations process, this needs to go through regular order,’ and they wait, they wait and wait,” Hawley added.

Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., had teed up a vote on a bill that would’ve done a simple two-year extension. He pulled it after an outcry from those seeking expansion.

“This is the exact thing they did two years ago: They passed the two-year, short-term extension, and they did nothing for two years,” Hawley said. “They’re gonna have to take up something, so just take up [my] bill that has broad bipartisan support.”

But expanding the fund comes at a cost. The Congressional Budget Office estimated last fall that the expanded compensation fund would cost the government $147.1 billion over 10 years. That figure has been reduced to less than $50 billion by limiting the window in which people would be eligible for benefits and by eliminating compensation for some illnesses, advocates say.

“Since the inception of this program in 1990, with the number of people that have benefited from this program, the cost is just over $2 billion,” Luján said. “And then CBO comes in with this astronomical cost. … I’ve not seen the disaggregated data and how they got there.”

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