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In victory for Hawley, Senate passes standalone measure reauthorizing radiation compensation program over GOP leadership concerns

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Josh Hawley’s monthslong battle with Senate Republican leadership bore fruit Thursday, as he secured Senate passage of a bill compensating victims of nuclear radiation exposure over their objections.

Hawley (R-Mo.) said he directly confronted Minority Leader Mitch McConnell last Thursday with “my deep frustration — to put it mildly” over his removal of the provision reauthorizing the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act from the annual defense policy bill.

“Tens of thousands of Americans are now worried about their coverage and their health care now because of what McConnell did,” Hawley, a vocal McConnell critic, said.

Asked to summarize his party’s leadership position on the legislation, which the Missouri Republican led with Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), Hawley deadpanned: “Not helpful.”

The bill ultimately passed the Senate 69-30. A unique coalition of Senate Republicans supported the measures: Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.), John Boozman (Ark.), Mike Braun (Ind.), Ted Cruz (Texas), Tom Cotton (Ark.), Mike Crapo (Idaho), Steve Daines (Mont.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Bill Hagerty (Tenn.), Roger Marshall (Kan.), Jerry Moran (Kan.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Jim Risch (Idaho), Mike Rounds (S.D.), Marco Rubio (Fla.), Eric Schmitt (Mo.), Dan Sullivan (Alaska), J.D. Vance (Ohio) and Hawley.

Daines, chair of the NRSC, was the lone member of GOP leadership to back the bill. Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Tom Carper (Del.) were the lone Democrats to oppose the measure.

Part of the concern among many Republicans is the bill’s price tag. An amendment to the NDAA last year was scored by the Congressional Budget Office to add to the deficit by $153 billion, though a Hawley aide said their revised proposal will “cut about $100 billion off” that estimate. A new CBO score has not been released.

“If we have $60 billion for Ukraine, which many of [my GOP colleagues] just voted for, surely we have enough money to help these people,” Hawley said, flanked by victims of radiation and advocates. “If we’ve got money for 6,000 earmarks, which apparently we do, surely we have money to help people who the government has poisoned.”

Republican leadership still wasn’t ready to sign onto the proposal.

“Sen. Hawley and I have been texting back and forth and had a couple of discussions — and we’re not quite exactly where we need to be yet,” Sen. John Barraso (Wyo.), the current Senate GOP conference chair, told POLITICO.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), another member of leadership, called the original Hawley proposal “way, way too expensive and expanded” but dismissed the idea of top Senate GOP members being steadfastly opposed to the proposal as “a little fantasy to me.”

Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) called Hawley’s efforts “helpful” toward shaping the bill in a way to “refine it and narrow it in a way that reduces the score,” but did not commit to passing it. McConnell’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Missouri Republican, up for reelection this year, sees the program as justice for those exposed to radiation and worthy of the cost.

“This is a moral issue: The government has exposed these good Americans to nuclear radiation without their consent, usually, without any support, definitely,” he said. “Now the government needs to make it right.”

Hawley estimates the reauthorization would extend to up to 600,000 new claimants and expand the program to make eligible people exposed in Missouri, Idaho, Montana, Guam, Colorado, Tennessee, Kentucky and Alaska. Absent congressional action, the program would expire on June 7.

As for what comes next in the House, Hawley said he’s had “multiple conversations with the speaker personally, one-on-one” about the urgency of taking up the bill and would continue to press the issue. Speaker Mike Johnson’s office did not comment on whether the House would take up the measure.

If it can secure a vote in the House, the measure would likely become law. The White House said in a statement of administration policy on Wednesday that it “supports” the legislation.