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Yucca Fight May Stall Nominees

Reid Could Cause Problems for Bush, Frist

With Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) ready to assume the mantle of Senate Minority Leader, the White House and Republicans in the chamber are facing a new challenge in pushing through a slate of President Bush’s nominees, as well as wrapping up a key fiscal 2005 spending bill during this week’s lame-duck session.

Both problems are linked to a largely parochial Nevada issue — the government’s plan to send tens of thousands of tons of spent nuclear waste to a repository in Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

From his perch as the highest-ranking Democrat in Washington, allies and enemies alike say Reid is certain to be emboldened in his demand that the Senate confirm his anti-Yucca nominee to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Aides are likewise convinced the Nevadan will use his position to make it harder for the White House and GOP Congressional leaders to seek additional funding for the waste site in the 2005 Energy and water appropriations bill.

Though Reid has had limited success in the past rallying Democrats to support his opposition to the Yucca Mountain plan, one Senate GOP leadership aide noted, “Now, he will be the Minority Leader and that carries with it a little bit more leverage over his own Democrats.” The aide added that the nuclear waste issue “is heating up a bit” because of Reid’s rise to the top of the Senate Democratic hierarchy.

The principal worry for Senate Republicans is that Reid’s insistence that the chamber confirm his top science aide, Greg Jaczko, to the NRC could prevent a whole host of other executive branch nominees from winning confirmation in the waning days of the 108th Congress.

Jaczko “may become the fulcrum upon which the whole package [of nominations] tilts,” acknowledged one senior Senate Republican aide.

Reid had already been holding up Bush’s nominations for non-Defense, non-judicial posts since the summer as he worked to secure Jaczko’s confirmation. Senate sources say White House aides have huddled in recent days with Reid’s office in an attempt to reach an accord that would allow the confirmation this week of scores of stalled nominees, including some being pushed by GOP lawmakers, to various executive branch agencies. But as of Friday, those talks had not yielded an agreement.

Reid used similar tactics last year to get the Bush administration to nominate Jaczko as one of the Democratic members of the commission that oversees nuclear energy utilities and the disposal of nuclear waste. But Reid and Jaczko have been in conflict with the nuclear industry — and their backers in the Senate — because of their long-standing opposition to sending highly radioactive nuclear waste to the Yucca site, about 90 miles outside Las Vegas.

But it remains to be seen whether Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) or the White House can convince Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), among others, to suspend their opposition to Jaczko’s ascension to the NRC. Frist and the White House are seeking to move carefully in their initial dealings with Reid as Minority Leader, and both sides know that it is very early in the session to be forcing a showdown over a relatively obscure post.

All signs right now point to an impasse, with Craig spokesman Dan Whiting saying the Senator “is still opposing [Jaczko] and will continue to oppose him.”

Meanwhile, the jockeying over the 2005 Energy and water appropriations bill, which includes spending for Yucca Mountain and other projects near and dear to the nuclear energy industry, continues.

As ranking member on the Appropriations subcommittee on Energy and water, a position Reid is expected to keep even as Minority Leader, he essentially prevented the panel from marking up a bill earlier this year as he sought to cut funding for the Yucca project. It now appears the programs and agencies funded under the bill may have to continue operating at last year’s funding levels until fiscal 2006.

Several Republican aides indicated that the GOP leadership has all but given up on trying to include an Energy and water spending bill in the omnibus appropriations package expected to pass next week. Instead, they are likely to pass a continuing resolution freezing funding levels until the beginning of the next fiscal year on Oct. 1, 2005. Yucca would receive $577 million under that approach.

While the White House and Domenici could live with that deal, it would be a problem for Reid and dozens of other lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and in both bodies who have loaded up the Energy and water bill with thousands of earmarks for projects in their own states and districts.

“The only one who wins [with a continuing resolution] is the White House. The White House seems content with a full-year CR,” said a Senate Democratic aide familiar with the issue. “The only other one who doesn’t want to do the bill is Domenici.”

The nuclear energy industry and utilities with nuclear operations, who opposed Jaczko’s appointment to the NRC, also would be displeased with that outcome.

“It’s certainly a good possibility that unless and until there’s some kind of long-term funding fix [for Yucca Mountain], there may be perpetual problems with getting an Energy and water appropriations bill done in regular order,” said Steve Kerekes, spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group representing nuclear power interests. “To expect something different would be wishful thinking.”

John Bresnahan contributed to this report.

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