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‘Morally, this is obscene’: GOP divided over stripping compensation for radiation victims from NDAA

The exclusion of a measure to extend compensation for people exposed to radiation from U.S. nuclear testing from the annual defense bill this week marked yet another fracture in the Republican conference.

The bipartisan amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) passed the Senate with a supermajority in August but was not included in the House version of the bill and was ultimately dropped from the final legislation. Co-sponsor Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) called its removal a “betrayal” of the country’s commitment to the victims of such radiation.

Proponents of the measure are pointing the finger at Republican leadership, saying they are responsible for stripping it from the NDAA.

Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) told The Hill he “still can’t understand why Republican leadership would stand in the way of providing support to the American people, who, as uranium mine workers, sacrificed so much for national security purposes.”

He did not say who specifically in Republican leadership blocked the measure. Hawley was more explicit.

Asked why the amendment was taken out, he told The Hill, “You ought to ask” Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

He said Democratic leaders Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) “were supportive” and that he was not given an explanation from Johnson or McConnell about why the measure was dropped.

“Morally, this is obscene,” he added.

“To tell me that we have a trillion dollars to spend on defense contractors but we have nothing for the people of this country who their own government has poisoned — it’s ridiculous,” Hawley said.

The amendment would have extended compensation for people who were exposed to nuclear testing and nuclear waste radiation as a result of U.S. government activity and suffered negative health impacts. These funds are set to expire next year, while the amendment would reauthorize them for another 19 years.

The amendment would also expand compensation — offering it for the first time to people in New Mexico, where the atomic bomb was tested in 1945, and Missouri, where uranium storage contaminated the Coldwater Creek, as well as Idaho, Montana, Guam and Colorado.

The differences over the measure mark a source of division among Republicans, as three of the leading voices calling for compensation were members of the GOP — Hawley, Sen. Mike Crapo (Idaho) and Sen. Eric Schmitt (Mo.).

Of the three, Hawley has been particularly vocal in condemning Republican leaders over the move to drop the amendment and has also said he would seek to delay the defense bill in response.

He told The Hill he’d force “every vote that I can” and pursue “every procedural hurdle.”

In a statement to The Hill, Crapo said it is “disappointing there could not be a consensus on specific details of the [Radiation Compensation Exposure Act] legislation to allow it to be included in this year’s NDAA legislation.”

A spokesperson for Crapo noted “a number” of proposals were floated between Senate and House leadership to try to reach an agreement either on the legislation that had passed the Senate in a bipartisan vote or something the House could be more amenable to.

But none was ultimately adopted.

McConnell did not answer The Hill when asked why the amendment was excluded. The Hill has reached out to Johnson’s and McConnell’s offices for comment.

Some of the objections appeared to center around cost. One fiscally conservative group — the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget — opposed the measure on those grounds.

“We’re happy to see that the amendment in the form that was in when it passed in the Senate isn’t in the bill,” Josh Gordon, the organization’s director of health policy, told The Hill.

However, Gordon said he would have been more amenable to the legislation if there were efforts to cut its costs.

“There could be things done to restructure the provisions to have lower costs, and it would ideally be paired in a piece of legislation that have offsets for whatever the increase in costs would be,” he said.

Negotiators attempted to lower the price by proposing to reduce the number of years of the extension or offset its costs, ABC News reported Friday, noting the efforts were ultimately not enough.

The issue — and particularly the procedural standoff that Hawley is leading — marks the latest in a series of rifts among congressional Republicans.

The most notable of these points of contention over the past several months was the ouster of then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) over legislation that averted a government shutdown. Now, all eyes are on Johnson to see whether he can deliver a bill that appeases budget hawks in his party while also getting enough Democratic support to pass the Senate and win President Biden’s approval.

And while the GOP conference in the Senate has been generally more unified than that in the House, Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) has ruffled feathers among his Republican colleagues by holding up military promotions — a months-long blockade that ultimately ended this week.

Updated 10:20 a.m.

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