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Washington Update

February 1, 2011

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Lame duck Congress: Some wins, more losses

Kyle W. Morrison, Senior Associate Editor 

The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act (H.R. 847), which was introduced in previous Congresses and failed, passed the Senate and House in the waning days of the 111th Congress. Signed into law on Jan. 2, the bill provides health care for first responders who fell ill from their work in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City.

It was uncertain whether the bill would pass following blocks by Republicans out of concerns for its original $7.4 billion price tag and a desire to first tackle tax cut extensions. When the bill passed out of the Senate unanimously on Dec. 22, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles E. Schumer (both D-NY) called it a “Christmas miracle.”

However, the miracle was bittersweet. Following an initial defeat in a procedural vote earlier in December, Gillibrand and Schumer cut $1.2 billion from the bill to reflect a recent court settlement with World Trade Center responders – a settlement some observers say is not enough to cover costs for the thousands of ill workers.

The cuts, along with refiguring how to pay for its cost, resulted in the bill getting enough votes to move forward. However, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) announced he would hold up the legislation unless additional changes were made, potentially killing the bill.

Gillibrand and Schumer negotiated with GOP leaders, and the final bill was slashed to $4.3 billion. The reduction comes from shrinking the authorization of the World Trade Center Health Program to five years from eight. The program, established within NIOSH, provides medical treatment for WTC-related conditions of responders and survivors.

The bill’s passage is welcome news for the thousands of first responders suffering from illnesses. But the contentious and labored debate over providing health care for sick and dying heroes certainly does not bode well for future efforts to improve the safety of “regular” workers.

Congressional Democrats failed to pass the Robert C. Byrd Miner Safety and Health Act (H.R. 5663), which would have addressed both mine and nonmine safety and health through increased penalties, greater whistleblower protections and more.

To win support of Republicans who earlier objected to including nonmine safety language in a mine safety bill, Rep. George Miller (D-CA) on Dec. 3 introduced the Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act (H.R. 6495), near-identical legislation stripped of Occupational Safety and Health Act reforms. In a Dec. 8 vote, the bill failed to garner the necessary two-thirds majority.

“We do not believe it is possible to effectively respond to the worst mining disaster in 40 years without a full understanding of its causes,” Rep. John Kline (R-MN) said in a statement.

But the basic mining safety improvements of this bill – which included more whistleblower protections, additional enforcement tools and stronger penalties – were debated for eight months before the vote, longer than the time spent nearly five years ago on the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act.

Coming after the 2006 Sago Mine tragedy, the MINER Act became law less than one month after its mid-May introduction. Another year passed before the Mine Safety and Health Administration issued its report on the Sago explosion.

The speed in which the new mine safety bill was advancing was not Kline’s only concern. The senator called the bill “flawed,” said it had fallen victim to partisan politics, and suggested the solution was not stronger regulations or whistleblower protections but greater scrutiny of MSHA.

This goes against Miller’s point of view: Miners are only kept safe by the law, which currently is too weak to deter some operators and owners from violating it – making his legislation necessary. “Unfortunately, there are still mine owners in this day and age who insist that they have a right to violate that law,” Miller said on the House floor. “Today, if you do it, you get a slap on the wrist. Pass this law and it’s a felony.”

With Republicans controlling the House and having a stronger minority in the Senate during the 112th Congress, Miller and others pushing for new worker safety legislation might have to wait a little longer to get their way or, like Gillibrand and Schumer, be willing to negotiate for something less than ideal.

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