Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, a gold miner's son from the top gold-producing state in the nation, is confronting competing political interests as House Democrats prepare to rewrite an antiquated hard-rock mining law.
The minerals mining industry holds huge sway in Nevada and industry is balking at some of the most far-reaching reforms. Reid must work with environmentalists and fellow Democrats in Congress, but also hang onto support at home or risk the fate of his ousted predecessor, Tom Daschle.
In an interview Reid said he supports reforms to the General Mining Law of 1872 and said he can work with House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall, D-W.Va. Rahall planned to introduce a rewrite of the bill on Thursday.
During the Clinton administration Reid had pitched battles with fellow senators he thought were trying to amend the mining law to hurt the mining industry. Reid always prevailed and the law remained fundamentally unchanged.
"We had people then that were more interested in destroying hard-rock mining," said Reid. He added that he met with Rahall on the issue last week.
"In the past he's been difficult to work with on hard-rock mining issues. He's a coal-mining person, not hard-rock mining, but a lot of things have transpired" since the reform attempts of the mid-1990s, Reid said.
"Nick and I had a long conversation. He'll be easy to work with," Reid predicted.
Rahall spokeswoman Allyson Ivins Groff declined comment in advance of Rahall's press conference Thursday.
Nevada political analysts said Reid will accept reform â€” but nothing the mining industry can't live with.
"It all depends on how you define the word reform. I think Harry Reid supports reform as much as the next person who represents a state with powerful mining interests," said Jon Ralston, a nonpartisan Nevada political analyst and columnist.
"The mining industry considers Harry Reid one of the greatest allies they have on Capitol Hill," Ralston added. "I can't imagine that's going to change after this bill."
Reid got more than $100,000 in donations from the mining industry between 2001 and 2006, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Mining is a $5 billion industry in Nevada and is especially crucial to the economy outside of Las Vegas.
Reid's political support is weak in those areas of rural Nevada anyway, analysts said. Nonetheless Reid, who will face re-election to a fifth term in 2010, must remain continually watchful of political support in his home state, where Republicans slightly outnumber Democrats.
Daschle, the former Senate Democratic leader, lost re-election in South Dakota in 2004 in part because his national role cost him home-state support.
The mineral mining industry, also an important force in Arizona, Utah and other largely Western states, has benefited from a law that has not changed with the times. Unlike with coal, oil or gas, the industry doesn't pay federal royalties on minerals it extracts. There are few environmental protections or reviews. The law allows public lands to be sold cheaply for mining, though Congress has annually imposed a moratorium on that.
Rahall would impose a series of environmental requirements, give more power to federal land managers to deny mining applications, and impose an 8 percent royalty fee that would go into a fund to clean up abandoned mine sites, among other changes.
The National Mining Association says it supports some changes that would add more certainty to permitting and is interested in an abandoned mine cleanup fund. But spokeswoman Carol Raulston said that an 8 percent royalty fee "could be very punitive to the industry."
"I wouldn't want to speak for Senator Reid, but I think you'll find the delegations of all the big mining states are supportive of the industry and want to make sure we can maintain those jobs," Raulston said.
Some attempts to change the law came close during the Clinton years but there has been little action under President Bush. With Democrats now in control of Congress, supporters of reform see a good opportunity for action.
But there's not yet a sponsor for a Senate version of the bill, and Reid indicated Senate action wasn't an immediate priority.
"We have a lot of things to do. It won't be this year," Reid said, adding there could be action in 2008.