He said he thinks the rumor that Bush is going to cut cleanup at the plant is just a trial balloon that will get shot down.
By Bill Bartleman email@example.com
If President Bush recommends a cut in federal funds to clean up the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning says Congress will soundly reject any reduction.
Bunning said he has no firsthand knowledge of plans to cut the U.S. Department of Energy budget next year by $1 billion, other than what he has read in news accounts quoting unnamed administration officials. The budget includes $400 million to clean up nuclear weapons plants in Paducah and at other locations throughout the country.
"If they think they are going to cut money out of the energy budget that is used to ... reduce the damage done to Paducah and the surrounding area, and at other locations throughout the country where nuclear weapons were produced, they have another thing coming," Bunning said Wednesday.
"My gut feeling about this rumor is that it is a trial balloon that will be shot down in a hurry, and if it is real and proposed to Congress, it is not going to pass," he said.
Bunning made the comments during a meeting with the Sun editorial board.
Congress approved a budget for the 2001 fiscal year that included $90 million for cleanup work in Paducah. Concerning the 2002 budget, "I think the senators will feel very strongly ... and will continue to fund it at least at the same level if not a higher level," Bunning said.
DOE officials contacted by the Sun said they had been instructed to withhold any official comment about next year's budget until it is delivered to Congress in early April.
Bunning, R-Southgate, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Louisville, U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, and other lawmakers with weapons plants in their states worked last year to increase funding for cleanup work. "That was the toughest issue we had to deal with," Bunning said.
He added that last year's hard work should make it easier to approve funding this year, even if it means going against the president. "The fewer dollars that we spend now, the longer it will take to decontaminate not only the plant in Paducah but others throughout the country," Bunning said.
DOE has signed a commitment with the Kentucky Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Cabinet to have the plant cleaned of major groundwater and soil contamination by 2010. Estimates are that the cleanup would cost $1 billion to $1.7 billion. Gov. Paul Patton has said that if funding is cut or reduced to a level that would indicate the 2010 deadline will not be met, the state will file legal action against DOE.
Bunning said he has more confidence in Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham than he had in former Secretary Bill Richardson, who Bunning said made a lot of promises that were not kept. "Spencer won't say much, but when he does, he'll follow though with what he promises," Bunning said.
On another matter, Bunning predicted that the first big fight in the Senate will come next month when debate begins on campaign finance reform legislation.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., have filed a bill that is intended to curb the influence of money in political campaigns. It would outlaw large, unregulated "soft money" donations from corporations, labor unions and individuals, and it includes other provisions intended to curtail the influence of money in politics.
Bunning said that for the bill to gain support from Republicans, it would need to have strong protections for union workers who donít want their membership dues spent on campaign activities.
He acknowledged that the reform measure is gaining support and could be approved, but predicted there will be sufficient opposition to sustain a presidential veto if it came. Overturning a veto requires 67 votes in the Senate.
Bunning said campaign finance reform debate will be followed by debate on Bush's proposed tax cut, which he predicted would be approved by June and made retroactive to Jan. 1. Bunning said Bush's proposed 10-year, $1.7 trillion budget cut is opposed by Democrats but has strong support by a majority of taxpayers.
He said the key provisions are that it would reduce the top income tax rate from 39.6 percent to 33 percent, and the lowest rates from 15 percent to 10 percent. It also would eliminate the estate tax and reduce the marriage penalty that results in married couples paying more than single taxpayers filing separate returns.
"I think the people really want this reduction ... and that it will be approved by June," he said.
The tax cut and anticipated additional cuts in interest rates by the Federal Reserve Board should be enough to head off a recessionary trend that began in November, Bunning said. He blames the current economic situation on Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan for not acting sooner to cut interest rates.
"They should have been cut in November, not January," said Bunning, who has been a constant critic of Greenspan.
Earlier Wednesday, Bunning spoke to hospital administrators and doctors in a meeting at Lourdes hospital in Paducah.
"Any Medicare reform that we do should include a prescription drug benefit," Bunning said. "I think everyone supports those benefits, but there is disagreement on what the benefit should be."
Bunning favors a program that bases the level of benefits on income.
He also said Congress is slowly correcting what he called mistakes made by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in interpreting the intent of the 1997 Balanced Budget Act.
He said the federal agency wrote regulations that cut $230 billion from the health care benefit program when the intent of Congress was to cut $120 billion. He said Congress worked last year to restore some of the "overcuts," and will work this year to restore the rest.
He said the cuts hurt hospitals and other medical providers because reimbursement levels were reduced and some rural hospitals became ineligible for some federal programs.
Bunning also said he hopes Congress passes legislation to speed the time it takes for hospitals and other providers to be paid for services covered by private insurance companies and federal programs, such as Medicaid.
In some cases, he said, it is taking five or six months for providers to be paid for services. The limit should be 90 days, he said, although he favors a shorter time period.
Bunning told the 30 medical professionals that he thinks the Bush administration will be friendlier to medical providers than the Clinton administration.
Bunning also spoke at the Paducah Rotary Club luncheon.