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Heller, Reid Trade Barbs Over Yucca Mountain Amid ‘Nuclear Option’ Fallout

(Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
(Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

In blasting Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s decision to use the “nuclear option” to change the way the Senate handles nominees, his Nevada colleague, Republican Dean Heller, raised the possibility that it could lead to opening a controversial nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, Nev.

Heller went so far as to call the legislative maneuvering “a scary day for Nevada.”

“The Nevada delegation has prevented Yucca Mountain from moving forward, a policy that is already the law of the land. We have been able to accomplish this using every arrow in our quiver. When you are from a small state, you have to rely on every tool in your toolbox to protect yourself,” Heller said in a statement.

Heller was raising the possibility that while Thursday’s action applies only to executive and judicial nominations except for those to the Supreme Court, a future Senate may use the same method to end the 60-vote requirement to limit debate on bills and amendments.

Reid spokeswoman Kristen Orthman was quick to issue a statement in response to Heller’s contention.

“It is disingenuous and frankly not true for Senator Heller to suggest a project that Harry Reid has already defunded and ended would miraculously rise from the dead,” Orthman said. “To show how clueless this assertion is, the efforts today to end gridlock in the Senate have nothing to do with legislation like Yucca, and only apply to judicial and executive branch nominations.”

Indeed, Reid did succeed in defunding the Yucca project when President Barack Obama took office in 2009. He has also moved to put in place regulators at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that are favorable to his views. The project has long been a point of contention in Congress. Senators from states with nuclear reactors have looked to Yucca as a place to store highly radioactive waste, but Nevadans and other opponents have argued transporting the waste would be dangerous and that the proposed site 90 miles from Las Vegas is not a safe location.

Of course, one key motivator behind Reid and Senate Democrats’ decision to move forward with their plan to effectively change the Senate rules involves their effort to fill three vacant seats on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals with President Barack Obama’s nominees.

In an August opinion, Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh ordered the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to resume consideration of the Yucca Mountain repository project. Earlier this week, the NRC directed staff to finish work on a safety review related to the project. Reid mentioned Kavanaugh by name Thursday, noting he was confirmed to the D.C. Circuit in the aftermath of the 2005 “gang of 14” deal that averted a similar change in precedent by Senate Republicans.

Tennessee GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander, who suggested earlier this year that opening Yucca could be a priority for a future Republican Senate majority not facing Democratic filibusters of legislation, didn’t go so far during a brief interview Thursday.

“I’m going to wait and see what the right thing to do is,” Alexander said. “I’m going to start by reminding the American people the election is the cure for this problem.”

Killing the nuclear waste repository is one of Reid’s great accomplishments, one that he’s gone to great lengths to protect.

Reid and other top Senate Democrats said Thursday they aren’t concerned about the possibility that a future Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., might attempt to end filibusters of legislative business.

“Good. Let him do it. As I said, the country did pretty damned well for 140 years,” Reid said at a news conference. “So, I think we’re beyond seeing who can out-talk the other. Let’s just get some work done on the Senate floor.”

“We’d much prefer the risk of up-or-down votes and majority rule than the risk of continued total obstruction. That’s the bottom line no matter who’s in power,” added Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.

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