© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

Hawley criticizes Wagner for questioning cost of compensating radioactive contamination victims

Coldwater Creek on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024 in Black Jack. The community requested the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct Technical Assistance Needs Assessment (TANA) and Technical Assistance Services for Communities (TASC) for Cold Water Creek and the St. Louis airport.
Eric Lee
St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley's legislation would provide compensation for people who became sick because of radioactive waste exposure, including those who may have contracted diseases because of their proximity to Coldwater Creek in north St. Louis County.

U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley sharply criticized U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner after she questioned the cost of legislation compensating people exposed to radioactive waste — a display of unusual public discord among Missouri’s GOP delegation.

For months, Hawley has sought to pass legislation reauthorizing the Radioactive Exposure Compensation Act, which provides money to people who became sick because of radioactive waste exposure. Hawley’s bill would extend that program into the St. Louis area, which was home to uranium processing during the Manhattan Project era.

Hawley’s bill passed the Senate on Thursday by a 69-30 vote. But soon after that legislation was sent to the House, Hawley put a post on the social media platform X blasting Wagner for comments she made to the Kansas City Star.

While noting that she supported compensating people who became ill because of radioactive waste exposure, Wagner said the bill could face a tough road in the House because of its potential price tag and lack of a funding stream to pay it.

Congress is not “looking to raise our deficits and debts any further than they already are,” she told the Star, adding “there needs to be a legit pay-for on this.”

U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, speaks with potential voters at a pancake breakfast on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024, in Kansas City, Mo.
Dominick Williams
Special to St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, speaks with potential voters at a pancake breakfast on Feb. 17 in Kansas City.

That prompted Hawley to send out several tweets attacking Wagner, including one that stated it’s “shameful for Ann Wagner to turn her back on her constituents - after doing nothing on this issue for years. St. Louis deserves better than this.”

He also criticized Wagner for her support of U.S. military assistance to Ukraine, an issue that’s been a major point of difference between the two.

He reiterated some of that criticism after meeting with striking Teamsters on Saturday outside Graybar in Hazelwood, also stressing that the House should pass the extension of RECA as soon as possible.

“The government poisoned the people of St. Louis and St. Charles. And for 50 years, they've been waiting for basic justice,” Hawley said. “I hope every Missouri House member would be a vocal champion of this, but especially somebody who's from St. Louis. I mean, what's the holdup?”

Without mentioning Hawley by name, Wagner sent out a series of tweets Friday afternoon in which she said she “will do all that I can to see RECA signed into law.”

“I have consistently fought on this issue for the last decade and those who stood alongside me know the work I have done to support our St. Louis community,” Wagner said. “I have made it known to House leadership, including the Speaker, that RECA passage is vitally important to the St. Louis region, and to tens of thousands of other families nationwide affected by the nuclear programs.”

Later on Friday, after Hawley continued his criticism of her on social media, Wagner said she would try to get the Senate version of RECA into a government funding bill that needs to be passed later in the month.

“Asking my MO House colleagues to join me in this effort to House & Senate Leadership & the Appropriations Committees to help victims of our WWII nuclear programs in the STL/St. Chas areas,” Wagner wrote.

When asked about Wagner’s push to get RECA into the government funding bill, Hawley replied, “It sounds like we're moving in the right direction there.”

“But there needs to be no excuses. No delays from anybody,” Hawley said. “I've talked to the speaker of the House about this multiple times before. I'm going to talk to every House member who will listen to me. The Senate now has done its part. The House needs to get on it. And I would just hope that folks from here in the St. Louis area would be major champions of this. I can't imagine why you would not be.”

The price tag

Hawley sought to place RECA in a major national security bill last year known as the National Defense Authorization Act, but it was taken out of the final version. Some lawmakers raised concerns about the potential cost of the legislation.

On Saturday, Hawley said that the estimated cost of the bill that passed the Senate last week is around $50 billion. But he said that money “represents costs that right now the victims are paying.”

“If the government breaks it, the government ought to fix it,” Hawley said. “In this case, the government has literally broken these people's lives in our state and around the country.”

Hawley pushed back against the idea that there should be some sort of funding stream.

“My response is that these guys pass bills all the time, like foreign aid, like money to defense contractors, like money for big corporations that are not paid for,” Hawley said. “What they say then is it's a national priority. Are the people of Missouri not a priority? They are. Are the rest of the folks in America who have been poisoned by the government in numerous other states, are they not a priority?”

Hawley has often made the argument that efforts like providing military assistance to Ukraine is a misplaced priority for lawmakers when they haven’t passed legislation compensating people who became sick because of radioactive waste exposure.

When asked if it was possible for lawmakers to help Ukraine and help people who contracted diseases consistent with radioactive waste exposure, Hawley said: “Of course.”

“I'm a skeptic of additional aid to Ukraine for a lot of different reasons. But even if you think it's wonderful, fine. Why can we not prioritize the state of Missouri and other good Americans who have served their country, who have given their health for their country, who have given their lives to their country — they deserve to be compensated. This is not a handout. This is justice for people their own government has put into harm's way.”

U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Ballwin) touts her accomplishments in Congress on Friday, July 22, 2022, during a meeting of the St. Charles County Pachyderm Club at Mattingly's Sports Bar & Grill in Lake St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner posted that she'll work for reauthorizing the Radioactive Exposure Compensation Act.

Unusual public criticism

Hawley’s criticism of Wagner is highly unusual — especially since the two officeholders are so influential in Missouri Republican politics.

Wagner, a former chairwoman of the state Republican Party and ambassador to Luxembourg, is a powerhouse fundraiser and a mentor to a number of prominent GOP political figures in the St. Louis area.

She was touted as a U.S. Senate candidate in 2018 but chose to run for reelection in the 2nd Congressional District instead. That decision came as other Missouri GOP heavyweights, such as former Sen. John Danforth, were urging then-Attorney General Hawley to run against then-U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat.

Wagner prevailed in reelection bids in 2018 and 2020 that were competitive, primarily because the 2nd District morphed from a fairly GOP-leaning seat at the beginning of the 2010s to a bonafide swing district. After redistricting, the 2nd District will be difficult for Democrats to win — especially since it includes Republican strongholds like Franklin and Warren counties.

The winner of the Republican primary in the 2nd District will be favored to win in November. That’s why state Sen. Nick Schroer of St. Charles County’s social media activity criticizing Wagner was notable — as the Defiance Republican lives in the 2nd District and can run for another office this cycle without giving up his seat.

But Hawley said his criticism has nothing to do with any perceived political animosity between himself and Wagner but rather with getting RECA passed and people in the St. Louis area compensated. He noted he’s been fiercely critical of outgoing Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell but added he’s pleased that he ended up voting for RECA last week.

“I want everybody to support this,” Hawley said. “And folks who don't support it or stand in the way of it — I'm going to come after them. I don't care what party it is. The people of St. Charles and St. Louis had been told for 50 years: ‘Wait another day. Wait a little longer.’ No more excuses, no more delays.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.