WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Richard Burr this week quietly blocked a massive defense authorization bill after he discovered that someone had inserted 38 words into a bill that Burr feared would hurt victims of water contamination at Marines Base Camp Lejeune, N.C.
Burr and his fellow North Carolina senator, Democrat Kay Hagan, took on the defense authorization bill after they discovered that an amendment they'd written that prohibited the Navy from making decisions about health claims related to the Lejeune water contamination issue had been rewritten. The rewritten amendment would have let the Navy act after it had given a 45-day notice.
The senators and other advocates had wanted no decisions made until federal scientists finished a host of studies that, many believe, will connect the contamination to a variety of cancers and other illnesses. They feared quick decisions would allow the Navy to make decisions that wouldn’t fully compensate victims.
The rewritten amendment was crafted by staffers from the House and Senate Armed Services Committee who were negotiating a final, fast-track version of the bill.
Burr and Hagan learned about the alteration Friday from the office of U.S. Rep. John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat who has been active in the Lejeune case.
“It was absolutely, totally unacceptable,” Hagan said of the change. “This was my language that I put in the bill. How could it be altered without me being told about it and weighing in on it?”
She confronted U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, during a luncheon Friday, and again Saturday during a vote on the Senate floor.
Burr, meanwhile, indicated to the Republican Senate cloakroom that he wouldn’t let the National Defense Authorization Act of 2011 go through for a floor vote, a procedural tactic meant to block its movement.
In the end, Levin received a letter from acting Secretary of the Navy Robert O. Work. (Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus was out of the country.) that said the Navy would hold off on making decisions about the claims until the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry completes several scientific studies about the water contamination.
Hagan and Burr were satisfied, and the full Senate approved the defense authorization bill Wednesday morning.
“I’m comfortable now,” Hagan said Wednesday.
This week’s drama caps a year of arguments between congressional staff and the military about how the Navy has handled its response to scientific studies about the contamination. The Camp Lejeune water was poisoned with trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, benzene and vinyl chloride until wells were shuttered in the mid-1980s.
Last winter, Burr held up two top Navy nominees until the agency agreed to fund a $1.5-million scientific study.