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Defense package heads to Senate sans RECA

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Defense package heads to Senate sans RECA

Jun 14, 2024 | 4:56 pm ET
By Danielle Prokop
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Defense package heads to Senate sans RECA
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The U.S. House of Representatives passed the National Defense Authorization Act on Friday, excluding any continuation or expansion of a program to offer compensation for people exposed to radiation by the federal government. (Danielle Prokop / Source NM)

The $883.7 billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) heads to the U.S. Senate without expanding a program to compensate people for radiation exposure by the federal government.

The package for fiscal year 2025 narrowly passed the U.S. House of Representatives along mostly partisan lines at 217-199 after introductions of right-wing amendments barring spending on issues range from abortion to combating climate change.

The package includes increases in pay for members of the military and higher food and housing stipends. The bill includes provisions that ban the Pentagon from “paying for or reimbursing expenses relating to abortion services.” It further bars the Tricare health care program from gender-affirming surgery for transgender troops and freezes any hires for diversity, inclusion and equity positions.

Much of the amendments were adopted in the 2023 defense package passed in the House along party lines, but were ultimately cut from the final version.

An effort to expand Radiation Exposure and Compensation Act was attached to last year’s defense package, but was stripped during conference on the bill.

The unique fund offered lump-sum payments to certain civilians living “downwind” of test sites, uranium miners before 1971 and federal workers on atomic test sites who experience certain cancers and diseases linked to radiation.

The program, nicknamed RECA, expired last week. Legislation to broaden the benefits to Americans across the Western U.S. and Guam has sat before the House for months after passing the Senate 69-30 vote in March. 

On Wednesday, Republican House leadership blocked bipartisan efforts from Congress members to expand RECA, with a committee vote killing an amendment to the defense package.

The amendment was introduced by the Republican Representative of Guam, James Moylan, and Rep. Anne Wagner (R-Missouri). Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, who sits on the House Rules Committee, moved to approve the amendment, which failed in a 4-9 vote.

Committee members expressed skepticism about the $50 billion cost to expand the program, echoing previous objections from Republican House leadership.

In remarks on the floor after the rules committee vote, Leger Fernández said Congress is failing to act, while downwinders and uranium miners deal with the fallout of cancer, diseases and early death.

“Blocking a vote on our bipartisan RECA amendment is walking away from the opportunity to do right by these communities, whom we have hurt,” she said.

This is the latest in a string of disappointments for advocates, including people bombed more than 78 years ago in the areas surrounding the Trinity Test Site, who have never been compensated by the federal government.

New Mexico Downwinders demand recognition, justice

The NDAA still requires passage through the Senate, and reconciliation between the two versions before becoming law.

All three New Mexico representatives voted against the bill.

Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D-N.M.) told reporters in a press conference after Friday’s vote, that she and others in the New Mexico delegation will push for expansion.

“We are regrouping, we are identifying other opportunities, and of course pushing for it to be attached to the NDAA in the Senate or through conference,” she said.

She pushed back on arguments that expanding RECA, which has paid out $2.5 billion since 1990, is too expensive.

“How is it that we can spend trillions of dollars every year, on all of these programs – defense and nondefense, and health care – but we can’t take care of the very people that have been impacted by our federal government’s weapons program,” Stansbury said.

The Senate could take the bill up as soon as the next few weeks, or it could stretch into the coming months.

Sen. Ben Ray Luján said in a recent interview that he would work to expand RECA. The defense package is one of the options, said Adán Serna, a spokesperson Luján said Friday.

“Senator Luján continues to push for the House to hold a vote on the Senate-passed bill to save and strengthen the RECA program,” Serna wrote in an emailed statement. “If the House fails to act, he will consider all possible options to extend and expand RECA, including the NDAA.”