Billion dollar mine cleanup could be part of Congress’ last pre-election budget

Congress will tackle budget matters next week, including more money for a fund to help clean up abandoned mines. That will help Kentucky, the home state of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Congress will tackle budget matters next week, including more money for a fund to help clean up abandoned mines. That will help Kentucky, the home state of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. AP

Big money to help areas in Kentucky and other states ravaged by the coal industry’s slump could be part of the last big budget bill Congress considers before the November election -- but the funding faces a lot of stiff competition.

Congress has until March 23 to fund much of the government through Sept. 30 or trigger a partial federal shutdown. And to sweeten the ever-growing pot of money, that means local interests must be served.

That's why there's an energetic effort to add $1 billion to clean up abandoned mines, including an estimated $100 million for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's home state of Kentucky.

Pushed by Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., the former House appropriations committee chairman who still retains considerable clout over the budget, the effort is aimed at boosting development in areas hard hit by the loss of coal jobs.

But the conservative Heritage Foundation pans the idea as "billion dollar boondoggle" and the RECLAIM Act faces opposition from the National Mining Association.

It’s unclear whether the majority leader — who has his own narrower version of the RECLAIM Act — has asked that it be included in the spending bill.

A spokeswoman for McConnell said the office wouldn’t comment on what may be in the spending bill, citing ongoing negotiations.

A Kentucky contingent that backs the measure lobbied McConnell this week, arguing that the money needs to be spent more quickly than is now expected so it can revitalize areas reeling from the slump in coal mining.

“We desperately need the money, we need the jobs,” said Fred Jackson, who owns a mining reclamation company in Kentucky and was one of those making the trek to Washington. “Our message was: ‘We need the help.’”

Rogers’ office said the eastern Kentucky congressman and McConnell have been working to push the legislation. A number of offsets to pay for the measure have been explored, the spokeswoman said, but the details remain unresolved.

The Kentucky interests’ biggest challenge could be competition from other local interests around the country that also want help from the budget bill. In South Carolina, for example, the congressional delegation is unusually unified behind an effort to secure funding to complete dredging Charleston Harbor.

Eight Republicans and the lone delegation Democrat have asked the White House to include as much money as possible in the Army Corps of Engineers’ part of the budget. President Donald Trump’s fiscal 2019 budget blueprint didn’t call for any new money to help finish dredging the floor of the harbor to allow it to accommodate larger vessels.

South Carolina, which has already contributed $300 million and says the project would be a major boost to the economy, is relying on $223 million in federal funds to finish the job.

The fights over what should be included underscore the difficulties a fractured Congress has in writing a budget. Lawmakers blew past their own deadline this week to unveil the spending bill and they'll be under increased pressure to land it safely by next Friday.

Senate and House leadership are still working out a number of unresolved issues and the White House has weighed in with requests, including backing House conservatives’ efforts to strip funding from so-called sanctuary cities which limit cooperation with federal immigration agents.

One giant dispute involving the bill: Money for a rail tunnel between New Jersey and New York City. Trump reportedly threatened to shut down the government rather than fund the Gateway Tunnel project, and New York and New Jersey lawmakers were scrambling to keep the $900 million pegged for the project.

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who pigeonholed Trump at a Friends of Ireland luncheon Thursday at the Capitol, said he told Trump he wouldn’t be able to vote for the measure without the money for the project.

“He was listening, he took it all in,” King said. “I’m always an optimistic guy, but we’ll see.”

Emma Dumain and Lindsay Wise contributed to this report.

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark