By Joe Walker firstname.lastname@example.org
"I'm probably a little bit more optimistic now than I was last night," Whitfield said Wednesday. "I had discussions with the speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader and they've indicated to me they will keep an open mind on the issue."
Whitfield has struggled to keep the medical and financial compensation bill alive after it passed the Senate as part of a big military spending bill. Key committee chairmen in the House have raised objections about the cost, saying Congress is taking on too many proposals for increases in entitlement spending.
Although a House subcommittee has scheduled a Sept. 21 hearing on the issue, that may be too late because the election-shortened congressional session is expected to end Oct. 6.
"It's very late in the session to be doing this," Whitfield said. "One chance we have is through the Defense Authorization Bill. A second chance is toward the end of the session because there will be one or two omnibus bills that include a variety of issues. I think we might have an opportunity there as well, but I don't want to be interpreted as being overly optimistic."
The Senate-passed program would give lifetime medical benefits and a minimum of $200,000 apiece to nuclear weapons plant workers who got sick from exposure to radiation, silica or beryllium. The Clinton administration wants to offer $100,000 for each sick worker.
Although there are concerns that his bill is a new entitlement, Whitfield said, the spending would eventually end, while other unrelated entitlements "go on forever." Other concerns are a lack of precise cost estimates and eligibility language that is too broad, he said.
"They also say it is major legislation without hearings and they feel like that's not the way to go," Whitfield said. "They've asked if we could get back with specifics on how to address some of the issues."
Richard Miller, policy analyst for the international atomic workers' union, blamed Republican House leadership for trying to kill the bill. He said support in the Senate, including heavy backing from Kentucky Republican Sens. Mitch McConnell, was bipartisan, but Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, in particular, has staunchly opposed the House version of the legislation.
Smith, who chairs a committee that will hold next week's hearing, has expressed worry that the cost of the package could top $3 billion. Miller pointed out that Smith is from the state of Gov. George Bush, the Republican presidential nominee.
"We have a situation where Bush, when he came through Kentucky earlier, expressed strong support for the package," Miller said. "Now we find that leadership in the House and his own party are killing it. It would be a tragedy, after all the work that went into this, to see it hit the wall."
Miller said it is especially troublesome that the bill is floundering as Dick Cheney, Bush's vice presidential running mate, is expected to visit Paducah.
"If this passes, Paducah would get the lion's share of the legislation," Miller said.