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Indy DC Download: Congressional delegation pushes to extend sunsetting downwinders law

Humberto Sanchez
Humberto Sanchez
CongressGovernment
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Good morning, and welcome to the Indy DC Download newsletter, a weekly look at what's going on in the nation's capitol as it relates to Nevada.

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Nevada’s congressional delegation is looking at ways to extend an expiring law that provides compensation to those exposed to radiation from nuclear tests in Nevada.  

The Radiation Compensation Exposure Act (RECA) expires on July 11, 2022. The law, enacted in 1990, provides $50,000 to persons who developed certain cancers and were in parts of Nevada near the Nevada Test Site, now known as the Nevada National Security Site, during nuclear testing.

Those areas include Eureka, Lander, Lincoln, Nye and White Pine Counties. It also covers specific areas of northern Clark County. 

“It’s not a mission accomplished thing,” said Rep. Mark Amodei (R-NV), who is optimistic the law can be extended before it expires. 

In an interview, he suggested that the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the annual military policy bill, is the likeliest vehicle to continue the compensation program.

Amodei's comments came as the House Armed Services Committee approved its version of the NDAA, including adding $24 billion to President Joe Biden's $415 billion budget request. 

Rep. Steven Horsford (D-NV), a member of the military policy panel, backed the Republican amendment to add the funding because it would benefit Nevada’s military posts. 

“In total, the fiscal year 2022 defense budget will make our military stronger, safer, and more responsive to the needs of our servicemembers,” Horsford said in a release following the passage of the NDAA.

The House panel's debate saw several amendments critical of Biden for the nation's tumultuous withdrawal from Afghanistan. Congressional Democrats with tough re-election races next year, including Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), have sought to take a harder line with the administration as Republicans have ramped up the criticism of Biden and, by extension, Democrats. 

With both the full House and Senate in recess, no votes floor votes were taken.

RECA

Amodei said he is looking at supporting legislation that would expand the areas covered by the law. 

“It’s a statewide issue,” Amodei said, adding that the fallout from nuclear tests likely contaminated the food supply.

A bill introduced by Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) would include Mohave County, just to the east of the state's southern tip and all of Clark County. The legislation also would extend the RECA trust fund for five more years. 

Rep. Greg Stanton (D-AZ) has a similar bill that is cosponsored by Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV) and Rep. Susie Lee (D-NV). The two were the only cosponsors listed for the measure.

Horsford’s office said he is planning to cosponsor legislation that has yet to be introduced. 

In the Senate, Cortez Masto and Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) also support extending the law.

According to her office, Cortez Masto sees the NDAA and the budget reconciliation package as two possible vehicles. The reconciliation bill is currently being drafted and would carry parts of the Democratic agenda, such as providing family and medical leave, that Republicans would not support.

Rosen is a cosponsor of legislation introduced by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) to extend the benefits to those in Mohave and Clark Counties. 

The bill would “take an important step to extend the geographic boundaries of areas eligible for compensation,” Rosen said in a statement provided by her office. 

Benefits under RECA are also available to certain uranium miners, mill workers and ore transporters who worked in the uranium industry between 1942 and 1971, when the federal government stopped its uranium procurement for the atomic weapons program, according to Amodei's office.

Along with the $50,000 one-time payment for individuals residing or working "downwind" of the Nevada Test Site, workers participating in atmospheric nuclear weapons tests that developed certain cancers are eligible for a single $75,000 payment and uranium miners, millers and ore transporters who develop particular cancers can receive a one-time $100,000 payment. 

RECA has awarded over $2.4 billion in benefits to more than 37,000 claimants since its inception in 1990.

According to the Atomic Heritage Foundation, the federal government conducted 1,021 nuclear tests at the test site between 1951 and 1992. Of the tests, 100 were atmospheric, and 921 were underground. Test facilities for nuclear rocket and ramjet engines were also constructed and used from the late 1950s to the early 1970s.

NDAA

The committee approved the NDAA on a 57-to-two vote after a roughly 16-hour markup that began Wednesday morning.

Horsford touted provisions in the measure for Nevada, including $20 million for the planning and design of a dormitory at Nellis Air Force Base.

“This dormitory is badly needed to address the housing shortfall currently faced by young Airmen, who are often forced to live off base,” Horsford said. 

Cortez Masto and Rosen have sought $7.2 million for the project in the annual  military construction appropriations bill. 

The MQ-9 Reapers program, which manages remotely piloted drone aircraft, many stationed at and operated from Creech Air Force Base, received $158 million for procurement, $129.7 million for modernization and $103 million for research and development. The program got another $53 million for maintenance.

Horsford was among the 14 Democrats on the committee to back the Republican amendment adding the $24 billion to the Pentagon budget. The amendment passed 42 to 17. The Senate Armed Services Committee approved a similar provision in its version of the bill in July.

“The $23.9 billion funding increase in the FY 2022 defense budget will help us keep pace with China and maintain our counterterrorism efforts around the world,” he said, adding that it would  provide direct benefits to his district, including beefing up the MQ-9 program.

Horsford voted for an amendment seeking a report on why the military closed Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, which could have aided with evacuation.

He also voted for an amendment requiring an interagency report detailing that the withdrawal will not impede the nation's counterterrorism mission or endanger national security. 

Horsford also delivered a speech that reflected a tough stance on how the administration handled the withdrawal but that praised the administration for ending the war.

“I wholeheartedly supported President Biden's courageous decision to end our mission in Afghanistan,” Horsford said. “In doing so he pulled thousands of our troops out of harm's way and did what previous administrations failed to do.”

“However, like many I was horrified by the tragic displays of desperation we witnessed in the final weeks of our mission,” he continued. “There is no question that in the final stages of this conflict we failed to fully uphold our moral obligations to our citizens and allies still stranded in Afghanistan.” 

Democrats seek distance

Horsford’s comments came as Cortez Masto marked the nation’s withdrawal from Afghanistan after a 20-year presence in the Middle Eastern country by calling on Biden’s administration to work with Congress to “get Americans and our Afghan allies out of Afghanistan and out of harm's way.”

Her comments reflect a position that congressional Democrats facing tough re-election campaigns are increasingly taking to try to distance themselves from Biden and his sagging poll numbers, according to Axios

According to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released Thursday, Biden’s approval rating fell to 46 percent, the lowest since he took office and six points below a July poll

Thursday’s poll also showed that Biden is losing independents. The share of independents that approve of the job Biden is doing fell to 36 percent from 46 percent in July.

That could be unwelcome news for Cortez Masto, as Nevada voter registration is trending more nonpartisan. Recently, the share of non-major party voters, 34.8 percent, overtook Democrats and Republicans in the state, at 34.78 percent and 30.4 percent, respectively.

Representing a state former President Donald Trump lost by two percentage points, Cortez Masto is a target for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, who are seeking to win back the majority. The Senate is currently split 50-50 between the parties.

The NRSC has called on Cortez Masto to take a harder position against Biden for the withdrawal, which saw 13 American soldiers killed on a suicide attack outside Kabul airport.

Her opponent, former Attorney General Adam Laxalt, an Iraq war veteran, wrote an op-ed Friday in The Washington Examiner that argued for a change in the makeup of Congress to hold Biden accountable.  

“It's time for investigations, resignations, and real change,” Laxalt wrote. “It's time to fire Democratic leadership in Congress so we can hold this administration accountable for its failure.” 

Cortez Masto’s campaign pointed to comments she’s made that have been critical of the administration for the chaotic withdrawal.

“I’ve never seen a plan,” Cortez Masto told KSNV in Las Vegas in August. “I asked the Trump administration for a plan — never got anything. I asked this administration — never received anything. And so, yeah, I do have questions. What happened?” 

For a full rundown of the measures the delegates supported or opposed this week, check out The Nevada Independent’s congressional vote tracker and other information below.

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