Republicans are trying to boost their bid to cut estate taxes with a last-minute legislative add-on that would pay for abandoned coal mine cleanup projects and health care for retired miners.
A coalition of labor, environmentalists and mining companies is behind the drive to renew the mine reclamation program, which uses fees on mined coal to pay for cleanup projects and health care for retired mine workers and their families.
The mining provision was added to the estate tax bill to try to entice West Virginia Democratic Sens. Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller to abandon a Democratic filibuster. It's also important to the re-election bid of Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., the provision's top sponsor.
Republican leaders still face an uphill battle to cut the estate tax, despite add-ons such as the mine cleanup provision, a minimum wage hike that Democrats badly want, and a package of popular tax breaks that includes a research and development credit for businesses and deductions for college tuition and state sales taxes. A Friday vote looms on whether to cut off the Democrats' stalling tactics, said Majority Leader Bill Frist — though the Tennessee Republican held out the possibility of a vote Thursday night.
Byrd is feeling the most heat among Democrats since he's running for re-election in a state where the politics of coal remain king. He has not announced whether he'll abandon his opposition to the estate tax cut measure now that the coal mine cleanup and retiree health coverage — as well as the Democrats' long-sought increase in the minimum wage — has been attached.
He has been heavily lobbied by senior colleagues such as Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., but declined to comment on how he'll vote.
"I'm listening," Byrd said Wednesday.
"It is critically important that this get passed," said Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America.
Rockefeller, meanwhile, said he'd vote against the hybrid estate tax and minimum wage bill. "The repeal of the estate tax is so costly that it will mean real cuts in everything from education to social security to highway funding," Rockefeller said.
West Virginia would be a big winner under the abandoned mine legislation, which renews a law first passed in 1977. The state has a large backlog of abandoned mine sites requiring cleanup and it has the most so-called "orphan miners" in the country.
Orphan miners are retired coal workers whose former employer has gone out of business. They tend to be poor and are concentrated in Appalachia. Many beneficiaries are elderly widows of miners.
At the same time, the legislation directs more assistance to states with big cleanup problems such as Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
"This is huge for reclaiming mines and streams in coal country in the eastern part of the country," Santorum said. "As well as taking care of a problem that is hanging over us like a black cloud, and that is, what can we do with orphan miner benefits."
Western states such as Wyoming — where most strip mines sites have already been remediated — would also reap a windfall, getting paid surplus coal taxes that have piled up in the $1.4 billion federal cleanup fund. States don't have to use the money to clean up mine sites. Wyoming, for instance, has spent some of its share on highways, schools and hospitals.
The mining bill has generated opposition from fiscal hawks such as Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., who says taxpayers would bear too much of the program's cost. Gregg also says the legislation unwisely puts the program on autopilot instead of renewing its budget each year so Congress can better review it.
But Gregg has muted his criticism now that the mining measure has been linked to the estate tax cut, a top priority for Republicans and party allies such as small businesses and farmers.
The mining provision is one of several aimed at attracting the votes of wavering Democrats. A provision to authorize rural bonds targets Mark Pryor, D-Ark., while a tax break for timber companies is aimed at Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.
"They knew what they were doing," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., of the GOP authors of the overall bill. "They loaded up the estate tax bill with as many state specific, industry specific projects as they could."
Still, Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was confident Democrats will block the estate tax measure. It takes 60 votes in the Senate to cut off a filibuster, and Republicans fell three votes short in a previous attempt in June.