The House yesterday approved a $250 million relief package for workers displaced by new, stronger clean air laws, despite White House threats to veto legislation that contains the provision.
The 274-146 vote came as the House moved toward final passage of a new clean air bill that is expected to cost thousands of jobs. Among the hardest hit would be high-sulfur coal miners in the Midwest and Appalachia because of acid rain controls aimed at cutting sulfurous utility emissions.
A proposal by Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) to provide $500 million in relief to coal miners alone was defeated in the Senate by a single vote in March.
The House measure, sponsored by Rep. Robert E. Wise Jr. (D-W.Va.), would extend an extra six months of unemployment benefits to workers able to demonstrate that new air pollution laws were an "important contributing factor" to their job loss. The benefits would be limited to $50 million a year for five years and include the costs of up to two years of job retraining and job searches.
"We've taken care of industry's interests, we've taken care of the environmental interests and it's time to take care of the people's interests," said Wise.
The House vote generally followed party lines, with only 43 Republicans supporting the measure after a direct appeal by White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William K. Reilly at a meeting yesterday morning.
In a letter to House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), Sununu and Reilly said the amendment would "create a potentially open-ended liability" by failing to provide a means of distinguishing whether workers lose their job because of clean air laws or other reasons. The measure, they argued, would "have massive budget implications" if it served as a precedent for workers affected by other environmental laws.
Wise said after the vote that it was unlikely that President Bush would veto a $50 million-a-year provision in a massive bill expected to cost $20 billion annually.
He said the unemployment benefits, which would come on top of the six months of relief provided workers who loses their jobs for any reason, would cover about 10,000 workers per year nationwide.
Estimates of job loss caused by clean air legislation vary widely. A study by the Business Roundtable concluded that 350,000 workers would be affected by the administration's proposal. The EPA projects that the acid rain controls alone could put 18,000 high-sulfur coal miners out of work because utilities would prefer to burn low-sulfur coal from the West.
Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) opposed the amendment as a thinly disguised subsidy for high-sulfur coal miners, a form of national cost-sharing that House negotiators had expressly rejected in putting together an acid rain compromise last month.
"Wait until it gets to conference and Senator Byrd gets another crack at this," Cooper warned. It is unclear if Byrd will be selected to participate in a House-Senate conference on the bill or if he could expand a provision that originated in the House. He could not be reached.
The Wise proposal, strongly endorsed by organized labor, industry and environmental groups, is patterned after the Trade Adjustment Assistance program for workers who lose jobs because of freign competition.