Senate sits on mine safety bill as GOP waits for W.Va. investigation results

Democrats hoping to bolster the nation’s mine safety rules this year are showing dramatically different degrees of urgency. 

While House leaders are racing their mine-safety bill through the lower chamber, the Senate has no plans even to introduce its bill until the fall. 

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The reason is clear: Senate Democrats need at least some Republicans to pass their bill, but GOP leaders are opposed to moving mine safety reforms quickly. Instead, they want to wait for the results of an investigation into April’s deadly explosion at the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine in southern West Virginia — results that won’t likely arrive this year.

The impasse has angered some Democrats in both chambers, who argue that the nation’s miners remain at risk every day Congress doesn’t act. 

“Even as the investigation of the Upper Big Branch mine continues, we know there are problems we can solve today,” Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said recently. “And we have an obligation to do just that.”

With that in mind, the House Education and Labor Committee will mark up its mine safety bill next Wednesday. Sponsored by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the panel, the proposal would expand whistleblower protections to miners, empower federal investigators to close unsafe mines more easily and grant regulators subpoena power when investigating mining accidents.

The legislation is a direct response to the UBB disaster, which killed 29 miners and maimed a 30th. 

But Republican leaders on the panel, behind Rep. John Kline (Minn.), the ranking member, are opposed to the bill. Not only are they leery of a provision to strengthen worker protections at places other than mines, but they’re wondering how Democrats hope to legislate solutions to an accident before its cause is identified.

The criticism hasn’t slowed down Miller. Then again, House Democrats don’t have to deal with filibusters. While GOP opposition in the House is an inconvenience, GOP opposition in the Senate is a bill killer.

Acknowledging that dynamic, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who chairs the Senate labor panel, says he’s holding out in hopes of crafting a bipartisan bill. Harkin’s office said Friday that the Iowa Democrat is “still talking to panel Republicans,” notably ranking member Mike Enzi (Wyo.).

“We want to give adequate time for those conversations to occur,” a Harkin spokesperson said in an e-mail, “but hope to have legislation for the Senate to consider by the fall.”

Enzi spokesman Craig Orfield said Friday that the Wyoming Republican has had a “preliminary discussion” with Harkin about the mine-safety bill, but it remains unclear what that proposal will look like. Orfield reiterated the Republicans’ concerns that no legislation should move before the cause of the UBB accident is revealed. 

“We need to know what went wrong before we start making changes to existing regulation and existing law,” Orfield said.

Discovering what went wrong could take awhile. Davitt McAteer, a mine-safety expert investigating the blast for the state of West Virginia, told reporters Wednesday that difficult conditions in the mine will delay that probe for months. “Our best estimate,” he said, “is that we’re looking at the end of the year for any kind of report.”

Asked if Enzi is concerned that miners could be at risk while lawmakers await the results of the investigation, Orfield said that mining accidents are unavoidable. “There’s always risk every day because mining is an inherently dangerous occupation,” he said.

Democrats disagree. Miller spokesman Aaron Albright said Friday that, “There are clear, identifiable problems with the law.” He pointed to a “pattern of violations” rule that’s never been used and whistleblower protections that miners don’t trust.

“That,” Albright said, “is what we’re going to fix.”