White House in Brawl Over Weapons Workers

By NANCY ZUCKERBROD Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Bush administration is locked in a rare election-year fight with fellow Republicans in the Senate over a troubled program for tens of thousands of weapons plant workers who got sick building nuclear bombs.

The lawmakers say they don't understand why the administration is blocking a Senate-passed amendment to the defense bill that would overhaul a compensation program bogged down by delays and other problems.

"I can't fully understand what their resistance is," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who is in a tough re-election battle in Alaska. "We've been hammered by our constituents."

Many of the workers are from battleground states in the upcoming presidential election, including Colorado, Iowa, New Mexico, Ohio and Washington state.

"These people are sick and dying," said Terrie Barrie of Craig, Colo., whose husband was sickened while working at the former Rocky Flats plant near Denver. "The administration, the Department of Energy, is just refusing to listen."

The Senate proposal would streamline the compensation process by having the government pay claims directly rather than having Energy Department contractors do it and later reimbursing them. It also would move the program from the Energy Department to the Labor Department and require the government to perform environmental studies of plants.

The lawmakers complain the Energy Department has squandered much of the $95 million it received since Congress created the program. As of the end of July, the agency has paid only 31 claims out of about 25,000 filed. The $700,000 in paid claims amounts to an average benefit of roughly $22,500.

Administration officials declined to comment on their opposition to the Senate measure, except to point to a statement by the White House budget office citing concerns that a change would create an "unworkable process," cause more delays, increase costs and expand the program's scope.

Senators say their bill does not add new benefits, but would ensure that more workers eligible for compensation get it.

House members appear to be siding with the administration.

Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., said changing who runs the program would cause more delays. He also expressed concern about GOP members in Congress feuding with a Republican administration during a presidential election year.

Harry Williams, a former worker at the Energy Department's Oak Ridge, Tenn., facility, said he is a Republican who doesn't plan to vote for Bush this November as long as the administration continues to oppose the changes workers want.

"I voted for him last time, but this time around I don't think I will," Williams said. "As it comes to dealing with the working guy, his administration doesn't have a feel for it."

Democrats are generally trying to steer clear of politicizing the issue.

The tension between GOP lawmakers and the administration was highlighted a month ago when the White House announced the recess appointment of Susan Grant as the Energy Department's chief financial officer.

Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., had been blocking her nomination to protest the department's handling of the compensation program. President Bush made the appointment while Congress was in recess, skirting the need for Senate confirmation.

The workers were exposed to toxic substances such as radiation, heavy metals, asbestos and harsh solvents and acids while employed by Energy Department contractors. They often were not told what they were working with and did not have adequate protections.

"These are our Cold War veterans," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. "They were working in an environment that they thought was safe. It wasn't safe."

Other influential Republican senators who support the overhaul include Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, Energy Committee Chairman Pete Domenici of New Mexico, Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens of Alaska and Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley of Iowa.

The proposal to help the workers is part of a defense bill passed by the Senate, but it is not included in a House-passed version. GOP senators are trying to persuade House members to include the changes in the final bill, but their efforts have been opposed by the Bush administration.

Congress passed a law four years ago directing the Energy Department to help the workers file claims for lost wages and medical benefits under state worker compensation systems. That reversed a decades-old practice in which the government helped contractors fight the workers' claims.

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