Mine-cleanup provision may threaten pension-overhaul bill

Republican leaders remained hopeful late yesterday that conferees on the long-awaited pension overhaul bill could reach a deal before the House recesses this week, but the objection of Senate Budget Chairman Judd Gregg (N.H.) to a coal-mine provision being pushed by a fellow Republican could jeopardize an agreement.

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who sits on the pension conference alongside Gregg, has intensified his campaign to include his mine-cleanup bill in the final version of the measure. Santorum’s proposal would shift federal aid to states with mine-cleanup expenses from discretionary to mandatory spending, reducing the amount of money coal companies would contribute to mine cleanup.

Gregg, in an interview, lamented the effort to move the cost burden off businesses; the budget panel estimates the move would cost $5 billion over 10 years.

“You are shifting a liability that has been borne by the industry to taxpayers with no public benefit to gain from that,” Gregg said. “Clearly, if they have this in the bill, I’m not going to be signing the conference report.”

If Gregg balks and Democrats oppose the conference report as a bloc, Republicans would not be able to secure a majority of signatures approving an agreement that includes the mine provision. However, conferee Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) is a supporter of the Santorum provision and Santorum’s popularity in the conference could sway other Republicans to his side.

Santorum spokesman Robert Traynham pointed out that Eastern states such as Pennsylvania, which are grappling with severe funding shortfalls in mine reclamation and cleanup programs, would receive much-needed help under the bill.

The mine-cleanup trust fund, Traynham said, “needs to be fixed. Reclamation is of high priority and woefully underfunded.”

In the House, Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters yesterday that he remains optimistic for a deal this week: “Our goal here is simple, and that is to make sure that workers’ pensions will be there when they retire,” he said.

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) decried GOP leaders for considering a postponement of one-year extensions for popular tax credits that cover research and development, college tuition and state and local sales taxes. Republicans hope to use those extensions as sweeteners for a future estate-tax repeal package in the fall, but the R&D credit is a crucial priority for business groups that are traditional GOP allies.

“Republicans are holding hostage needed tax relief for working Americans, businesses and students in an effort to pass fiscally irresponsible estate-tax breaks,” Reid said in a statement.