WASHINGTON — The Senate completed work Tuesday on a bill that would expand funding of the federal government's Superfund hazardous waste cleanup program to $7.5 billion--a fivefold increase--and key senators predicted easy passage when a final vote on the measure is taken Thursday.
Final passage of the measure, which envisions a five-year extension of the Superfund program, had been expected Tuesday, but it was delayed because the Senate lacks the constitutional authority to initiate tax measures. Therefore, senators must go through the procedural hurdle of finding a House-passed tax bill on which to attach it.
Sen. Robert T. Stafford (R-Vt.), sponsor of the measure, predicted a "substantial majority" of the Senate would back the bill Thursday. In a crucial test of support last week, 79 senators voted against an amendment that would have reduced the funding of the 5-year-old program to $5.7 billion.
Passage of the bill would set up a clash with President Reagan, who objects to a new excise tax on business that would provide most of the financing for the cleanup program--about $5.4 billion. Key White House staff members have recommended a veto if the bill includes such a tax.
The Administration was unable to find a senator willing to sponsor its proposal to fund the program out of general revenues, a move that would worsen the federal deficit. The best it was able to accomplish was a non-binding amendment, approved on voice vote, that suggested the Senate Finance Committee consider finding another, unspecified funding source.
Despite the veto threat, Stafford predicted: "When the chips are down, the Environmental Protection Agency and the EPA administrator are going to want this program enough that the President will be convinced to sign it. . . . I think there will be a lot of pressure on the President to sign the bill when the time comes."
More than 800 sites are now listed on the EPA's national priority list for cleanup. With the additional funds, Stafford said, the agency expects to be able to embark on a program of cleaning up about 115 of those sites a year. It also anticipates handling about 200 emergency cleanups annually.
A House version of the legislation still is being considered by several committees but is expected to provide for a $10-billion program, and pressure is mounting for action because the program's funding expires Monday. EPA Administration Lee M. Thomas already has stopped or slowed cleanup work on 57 toxic-waste dumps in an effort to conserve remaining funds for emergency efforts.
The most controversial Senate action on the bill Tuesday was its 49-45 vote to strip the measure of a pilot program that would have provided up to $150 million a year over five years to compensate victims of exposure to toxic-waste dumps. The money would have paid medical bills and health insurance for people who have suffered health effects from living near dumps.
Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Me.), the leading backer of the plan, described it as a "cautious, limited-in-scope, limited-in-funding" effort.
But opponents warned that the price tag could soar far higher than envisioned in the bill. Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.), leading the critics, said it carried the "inevitability of costing many billions of dollars in the future."
Another amendment, approved on voice vote, would provide incentives to settle lawsuits against polluters out of court.
By avoiding lengthy and costly legal battles, Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) said in arguing for the amendment: "We would do something to expedite the primary purpose of this Superfund, which is to get these sites cleaned up."