Nevada Waste Site Defeated In Election-Year Tussle Over Reid's Senate Seat
By Chuck McCutcheon, CQ Staff Writer
A proposal to store nuclear waste 100 miles from Las Vegas has long been opposed by Nevada's congressional delegation. But this time around, election-year politics helped contribute to the bill's demise.
The Senate on June 2 was four votes short of the 60 votes needed to invoke cloture and move to a vote on HR1270. The bill would provide an interim storage site for high-level waste generated by nuclear power plants in 35 states. (Vote 148, p. 1559)
The vote came after Senate Democrats complained that taking up the nuclear waste bill would interrupt debate on, and possibly kill, the comprehensive tobacco proposal (S1415 S Rept 105-180) now being debated.
The Senate's action also followed a statement from House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., who said he does not expect to bring the nuclear waste bill before the House this year.
Gingrich said his decision was the result of "the crowded calendar and the strong opposition of some members." But some lawmakers also saw it as a nod to Rep. John Ensign, R-Nev., in his challenge to Democratic Sen. Harry Reid. Ensign startled many senators by announcing the Speaker's decision even before Gingrich did.
After the Senate vote, representatives of the nuclear power industry vowed to continue exploring ways to clear the bill by the end of the 105th Congress. Issues that are "political rather than substantive" delayed the bill, said Joe Colvin, president and chief executive officer of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the Washington-based lobbying arm of the nuclear power industry.
But Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Frank H. Murkowski, R-Alaska, said reviving the bill would not be possible this year.
"It looks like it's dead until Ensign's election comes up," Murkowski said in an interview. "It's a loss for the taxpayer, it's a loss for the industry and it's a loss for Congress, because it ain't going to go away."
Reid and Sen. Richard H. Bryan, D-Nev., declared victory. The Republicans, Reid said, were trying to drop tobacco and "trying to make nuclear waste the fall guy."
The House and Senate passed bills (HR1270, S104) in 1997 requiring the Energy Department to build a temporary storage site for spent fuel from commercial nuclear reactors. The site has been a priority for nuclear power companies, which say the department is ignoring the waste piling up at utility company sites.
Congress called for a temporary storage site after designating a permanent site at Yucca Mountain (PL 100-203). That site has run into safety and environmental problems expected to delay its opening at least until 2010. (1995 Almanac, p. 5-27)
Supporters said a temporary site would honor a commitment by the federal government and upheld by recent federal court decisions for the Energy Department to accept spent fuel from commercial plants. But President Clinton has promised to veto any bill to establish such a site.
After weeks of speculation, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., scheduled a cloture vote during a break in the tobacco debate. Lott said June 1 that he had been told the nuclear waste bill had more than the 67 votes to override a presidential veto. The version the Senate passed in 1997 got 65 votes.
But some Democrats portrayed Lott's decision as a tactic to delay action on tobacco. Although the tobacco bill has bipartisan support, some Republicans have objected to the comprehensive bill, which would increase cigarette taxes and launch a campaign to cut teen smoking.
"In effect, a vote to invoke cloture is a vote to kill tobacco," Bryan said during floor debate on the nuclear waste bill.
Murkowski testily responded that Bryan and other Democrats were irresponsible in trying to combine the two topics. "This issue should stand on its own," he said during debate.
On the cloture vote, all 53 of the Republicans present supported limiting debate on the waste bill. They were joined by three of the 42 Democrats present: Carl Levin of Michigan, Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina and Charles S. Robb of Virginia. Murkowski accused the other Democrats of uniting behind the bill to bolster Reid's chances. "It's crass politics to save Reid; that's what that caucus was all about," he said.
But among those who joined Reid and Bryan in opposing cloture was Bob Graham, D-Fla., a supporter of the storage proposal. Graham said before the vote that he was "unwilling to take the risk" of consuming floor time.
Reid also said Nevada voters recognize that he and Ensign are equally opposed to the storage site. "Nuclear waste has not been an issue in years gone by where people point to each other and say we [in the delegation] didn't do enough," he said.
Bill: HR1270 (H Rept 105 290) -- Interim storage site in Nevada for high-level nuclear waste.
Latest action: Senate failed to invoke cloture, 56-39, on June 2.
Next likely action: No further action this year.
Reference: CQ Weekly, pp. 485; 1997 CQ Weekly, pp. 2546, 2482, 2221.
© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All Rights Reserved.