Ergonomics Fight Threatens Labor Spending Bill

Congress has not passed the Labor Department's appropriation bill\r\nyet, but it now appears likely that OSHA will get the $44.4 million\r\nincrease President Clinton requested for its fiscal year 2001 budget.

Congress has not passed the Labor Department''s appropriation bill yet, but it now appears likely that OSHA will get the $44.4 million increase President Clinton requested for its fiscal year 2001 budget.

Nevertheless, because of an ergonomics rider, a big fight is looming over the entire $106 billion Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services spending bill, according to the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee drafting the measure.

Sen. Arlen Specter announced at a July 28 news conference held with Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, that the House-Senate Republican Conference had agreed on funding for the entire measure.

Just like last year, the House''s lower OSHA budget figures were scrapped during conference negotiations with the Senate. Conferees chose instead to adopt the Senate''s more generous figure, which matches the President''s $426 million request, an 11.6 percent increase over the current fiscal year.

Specter admitted that some disagreements remain with the Democrats, but added, "we have established a baseline which Senator Harkin and I think can form the basis for ultimate agreement when we return after Labor Day."

Harkin appeared less optimistic. He praised Specter for his willingness to work with Democrats on the bill, and said good progress had been made at narrowing differences.

The bill includes a rider blocking the expenditure of any money on OSHA''s ergonomics proposal, and Harkin said this provision and two others were "unacceptable" to him, to many other senators, and to the President.

"We need to drop these provisions," he said.

It is now policy disputes, rather than differences over spending, that will assume center stage when lawmakers return from the August recess and try to complete work on the appropriations bill.

Despite their accommodation to the President''s spending requests, Republicans did not budge on ergonomics, retaining the rider after heavy lobbying by business groups. President Clinton has threatened to veto the appropriations bill if it carries an anti-ergonomics rider.

Even the normally bi-partisan Specter predicted a tough fight over OSHA''s proposed standard this fall.

"We''re going to have a battle royal over ergonomics," he predicted. "I do not know how that''s going to be resolved."

by James Nash

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