Heeding threats of a White House veto, the Senate Thursday narrowly rejected a proposal to grant special benefits to coal miners who lose their jobs as a result of new clean air legislation.
The $500-million assistance package sponsored by Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.) was voted down 50 to 49. Both the White House and the Senate leadership had lobbied fiercely to defeat the proposal. They described it as a "deal busting" amendment that could have doomed the chances of passing a clean air bill this year, the 20th anniversary of Earth Day.
Supporters of the clean air legislation, which represents a comprehensive but fragile compromise negotiated by Senate leaders and the White House last month, said that defeat of the Byrd amendment eliminates the last major hurdle to Senate passage of the bill. It will be the first major revision of the 1970 Clean Air Act in 13 years.
"It's all going to be down hill from here. Finally, we're going to get a bill, and it's a bill with which we can be very pleased," Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), the minority whip, said after the vote.
In separate action late Thursday, the Senate agreed by a voice vote to an amendment that would require the use, by 1993, of a cleaner blend of gasoline in automobiles in the nine cities with the worst smog problems, including Los Angeles.
In the House, the Energy and Commerce Committee beefed up a provision in its clean air legislation with a similar requirement.
The Senate had earlier agreed to end weeks of often bitter and sometimes impassioned debate by scheduling a final vote on the new clean air bill for next Tuesday.
Although dozens of amendments are still pending, none are likely to challenge the battered but so far impregnable White House-Senate compromise.
It withstood repeated assaults last week as Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) and Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) turned back attempts by both environmentalists and pro-business senators to alter the compromise with various amendments.
But it faced what was by far its toughest test on Thursday, when the Byrd amendment finally came up for a vote after days of intense negotiations, heavy lobbying and passionate speech-making by Byrd on the Senate floor.
"It was political hardball all the way," one Senate staff member said. "Never has there been a vote on this bill where senators were lobbied so hard, or where their allegiances were so torn."
The Administration strongly opposed the Byrd amendment on cost grounds, and Republican sources said that President Bush personally spoke by telephone with nine senators shortly before the vote.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), a key swing vote, was summoned from the floor during the roll call by a phone call from White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, who persuaded him to switch sides at the last minute and vote against Byrd.
Biden said he did so only because Sununu had told him that there would be no clean air bill this year if Byrd's amendment was passed. "I asked him point blank if Bush would veto the bill. He guaranteed me the President was going to veto it," Biden said.
Sen. Steve Symms (R-Ida.), the Senate's staunchest opponent of the clean air compromise, initially voted for the amendment but then, emerging with a grim face from a lengthy huddle with Simpson and other Republican leaders, switched his vote to oppose it.
Symms would not comment on his change of heart, but Simpson said the senator's Republican colleagues had "laid it on the line with him."
Sen. Spark M. Matsunaga (D-Hawaii), bedridden with prostate cancer, came to the Senate floor in a wheelchair to cast his vote in favor of Byrd's amendment.
In the end, 38 of the Senate's 55 Democrats and 11 of its 45 Republicans sided with Byrd. Dole delivered 34 Republicans to defeat the amendment, but Mitchell, in what many senators regarded as the toughest test of his leadership to date, was able to hold only 16 Democrats in line.
It was enough, but it might not have been if the flight that was supposed to bring Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) back to Washington in time for the vote had not been delayed by bad weather.
Byrd's amendment would have provided up to three years of unemployment and job retraining benefits to the estimated 3,000 to 5,000 coal miners who are expected to lose their jobs as a result of the clean air bill's proposed controls on acid rain. West Virginia produces high-sulfur coal.
It would also have provided up to one year of more limited benefits to other workers who lose their jobs as a result of the legislation's impact on industry.
Mitchell, Dole and other opponents of the amendment argued that it would cost too much to implement and would discriminate against other workers who might also lose their jobs but would not receive compensation similar to the "super benefits" that Byrd was proposing for coal miners in his native West Virgina and other coal-mining states.
"A lost job is a lost job," Dole said. "What happens if someone is laid off at J. C. Penney because the coal miners" have been laid off?
Byrd noted that the Administration was seeking $500 million in urgent assistance for Panama and $300 million for Nicaragua. "That money will be spent in Panama . . . but what are we willing to spend here, for the workers who sweat and bleed to make this country great?" he asked.