Showdown at Yucca mountain

Posted: Mar 21, 2002 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- Kenneth Duberstein, President Ronald Reagan's last chief of staff, was tapped last week by Nevada gambling interests as the Republican lobbyist against depositing nuclear waste in the state. He was at least the eighth Republican asked. The others dared not risk the Bush White House's wrath, which now will fall on Duberstein. High-ranking aides to President Bush indicated to me that Duberstein may find the White House door locked, a daunting prospect for a leading Republican lobbyist. That reaction reflects politicization of the long-pending proposal to store the nation's accumulating nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, Nev. It tests whether Bush can prevent the Senate's Democratic leadership from making good on its assurances that Yucca is dead. Ending a 15-year process, the Senate and House appear ready to override Nevada's objections to millions of tons of nuclear waste being sent to Nevada, thereby erasing the biggest obstacle to nuclear power development. Nuclearphobic environmentalists are supported by the gambling industry, which is convinced that underground nuclear storage 90 miles from Las Vegas will deter the high rollers. Sen. Harry Reid, the effective Senate Majority Whip, is from Nevada and places killing Yucca on top of his agenda. In the euphoria after the Democrats took control of the Senate last May, Majority Leader Tom Daschle came to Las Vegas for a fund-raiser and -- with Reid by his side -- promised that the waste repository would die in the Senate. However, this is not as easy as blocking floor votes on Alaska oil drilling or a judicial nomination. The privileged Senate motion to take up the bill, by law, cannot be locked up in committee or delayed by filibuster. The easiest approach would be for the president to forget about the Nevada storage plan. The state's two most prominent Republicans -- Gov. Kenny Guinn and Sen. John Ensign -- warned the White House that a pro-Yucca decision might yield a Democratic sweep of Nevada's three seats in the House of Representatives. That could restore Democratic control of the House. A negative presidential decision would be a death sentence for nuclear power, but this energy mode is backed by Bush and Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham as part of a comprehensive national program. Bush did approve Yucca, and Nevada interests set about recruiting the best lobbyists money can buy. They considered the biggest, most expensive Democratic name: Bill Clinton. Instead, Nevada hired John Podesta, President Clinton's last chief of staff (along with his brother, veteran Democratic political operative Anthony Podesta). The Podesta brothers are unlikely to be effective with Republican senators. So, that left the chore of hiring a Republican lobbyist. The difficulty was demonstrated in the case of Robert Dove, retired parliamentarian of the Senate. Seeking loopholes to block Yucca, Nevada interests last signed up Dove at $3,000 per month. Dove was a consultant to the Patton Boggs lobbying firm, whose electric utility clients protested bitterly about Dove's anti-Yucca role. Patton Boggs informed this column that Dove was no longer with the firm as of Jan. 31. The Nevada interests felt out former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who said no rather than pick a fight with the White House. An offer to Timmons & Co. (headed by ex-Nixon White House aides Bill Timmons and Tom Korologos) also was declined. Former Republican National Chairman Haley Barbour's lobbying company was asked, but rejected the offer; Barbour was not even consulted, but colleagues knew he wanted no conflict with the president. An additional reason for the Timmons company to say no was opposition by a long-standing client, the Union Pacific Corp., which wants to haul nuclear waste to Nevada. The Duberstein Group also has a big railroad client, CSX Corp., which could object. Ken Duberstein told me he had not heard from CSX, but he also said he expressed doubt that the White House would punish him. He is clearly wrong about the White House. A whole industry's fate and one state's political future are at stake. John Sununu and Geraldine Ferraro have been hired as Republican and Democratic lobbyists by the nuclear industry, but they may not be needed with the Bush team arrayed for battle.