By Darren Goode and Mike Lillis - 09/29/10 10:20 PM EDT
A top Senate Democrat said Wednesday that, if Congress fails to pass mine safety legislation in 2010, it's not likely to happen for years.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said mine safety reform "has less of a chance" next year because "there’s going to be even more of the ideology factor plus the party discipline factor."
Democrats in both chambers are pushing bills to provide greater protections for the nation's miners — a response to April's deadly coal mining blast in southern West Virginia. But the debate has been marred by partisan sniping over the scope of the reforms, with Democrats urging strict new guidelines and Republicans advocating more lenience for fear of hobbling the industry.
Indeed, the House bill passed through the Education and Labor Committee in July without a single GOP vote. And Tuesday, Rockefeller's stab at passing the Senate version unanimously didn't make it past the figure of Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), who objected on the grounds that it's a strictly partisan bill.
Enzi said the staffs for the two sides had worked "through the entire August recess."
"Numerous meetings," he said. "Making great progress." But then the Democrats called off the talks, Enzi said Tuesday justifying his objection.
"If the majority really wanted to pass a bill on this issue then they would have continued with those bipartisan negotiations."
Rockefeller on Wednesday said he knew Enzi would object. "In fact I talked to Enzi about it a week to 10 days before I did it," he said.
But he took issue with Enzi's claim that the Democrats had abandoned the bipartisan negotiations.
"We never did that," Rockefeller said, adding that the last meeting involving either members or staff occurred before the August break.
Rockefeller said the last member-level discussion — including himself, Enzi, Sen. Carte Goodwin (D-W.Va.), Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Sen Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) and others — "was a very good meeting." But then the lawmakers turned the issue over to their staffs in August "and just nothing happened," he said.
The West Virginia Democrat also said Tuesday's effort to pass the bill, though it failed, nonetheless sends an important message.
"It lays down what some of us think mine safety oughta be," he said. "It didn't have a legislative effect but it had a psychological effect. And from my point of view, it was a statement to the miners that I represent that I care that I want good tough legislation."
Talks on the issue will resume "soon," Rockefeller added, without lending specifics.
"The process," he said, "works slowly."