Hawley vents frustration to McConnell in tense Capitol meeting

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), a rising conservative voice in the Senate, confronted Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) during a private meeting Thursday evening over McConnell’s opposition to Hawley’s proposal to compensate victims of radioactive exposure around St. Louis.

Hawley says McConnell led the effort to strip his proposal to expand and extend the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) from last year’s defense authorization bill, even though Hawley’s amendment got 61 votes on the Senate floor.

“We had a discussion about RECA and I just told him directly to his face what I told all of you, which is I didn’t appreciate that he took it out of the [National Defense Authorization Act.] That’s a direct affront to my state. There are thousands of people who are dying and that he’s the problem and that I take that personally just on behalf of my state and it’s not acceptable to me,” Hawley said after walking out of the meeting in McConnell’s Capitol office.

Hawley told McConnell that he wants him to back the proposal, which Hawley has since modified to also cover victims of radioactive exposure in Kentucky, Tennessee and Alaska.

He further modified his original amendment to reduce the cost of the proposal by $100 billion without substantially impacting the coverage for victims.

McConnell didn’t appear to change his opposition to Hawley’s legislation but he didn’t block a deal Hawley secured with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to vote next week on a stand-alone bill to reauthorize and expand the radioactive exposure compensation fund.

“He brought up the cost and I said I didn’t hear a lot of grousing about the cost when we were voting on Ukraine funding or anything else for that matter. He called it an entitlement. I said it’s not an entitlement, it’s a compensation program for people the government has poisoned,” Hawley said after the meeting. “I was very direct.”

Hawley has made reauthorization of the Radioactive Exposure Compensation Act, which expires in the spring, a top priority to address the suffering of constituents in the St. Louis and St. Charles area who were exposed to improperly stored radioactive waste left over from the World War II-era Manhattan Project.

He got Schumer to agree to schedule a vote on the legislation next week after briefly holding up the short-term government funding package that Congress needed to pass by Friday to avoid a partial government shutdown.

Hawley’s bill needs 60 votes to pass.

“I feel good about it. It’s progress. It’s overdue,” Hawley said.

If it passes the Senate, it would need to also pass the House to make it to President Biden’s desk for a signature.

“I hope they’ll take it up. If they don’t, I’ll keep attaching it to stuff,” he said.

The Senate attached Hawley’s amendment to the annual defense authorization in July by a vote of 61 to 37.

It was later stripped from the defense bill during negotiations with the House and Hawley blamed McConnell for leading the charge to remove it.

“Schumer said before they even had a Four Corners meeting, he said McConnell went to him and said ‘I don’t want RECA in there. I want to get rid of it,’ From the very beginning, it was like McConnell’s going to be a problem,” Hawley told The Hill in December.

McConnell’s allies told The Hill at the time that Hawley’s proposal would have created a huge unfunded mandate — something Hawley disputes.

McConnell’s allies pointed out that Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) also opposed Hawley’s proposal.

A Senate GOP aide said Hawley’s bill to reauthorize RECA would have cost more than $100 billion over 10 years, a number that Hawley said far overestimates the actual cost of compensating radiation victims in Missouri. 

Hawley insisted at the time that he would make the decision to block compensation for victims of radioactive exposure in his home state “as painful as I possibly can.”

“You can’t roll over the people of Missouri, you cannot roll over all those who have had radiation exposure, take away the life-saving help they’re depending on and just expect me to be quiet about it,” he said.

Hawley and McConnell had another clash right before Christmas when the Missouri senator blocked the confirmation of two former McConnell aides who have been nominated to serve on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

Hawley placed holds on Andrew Ferguson and Todd Inman, who were nomination to serve on the FTC and NTSB, respectively.

Ferguson is McConnell’s former chief counsel, and Inman is a former McConnell campaign aide who also previously served as chief of staff to former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, McConnell’s wife.

Hawley was one of 10 Republican senators who voted against McConnell’s re-election as Senate GOP leader after the 2022 midterm election. 

This week he praised McConnell’s decision to retire from leadership at year’s end as “a good decision” and a chance for the Senate Republican conference “to start fresh.”

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