Senate's nuclear showdown

Posted: Jul 08, 2002 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- When the Senate returns from its Fourth of July recess, it will be showdown time for Majority Whip Harry Reid. A vote this week, perhaps Tuesday, will determine the value of Reid's countless hours spent on the Senate floor, attention to numbing detail and innumerable favors to colleagues. He needs to turn around votes of five fellow Democrats to kill the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Reid's home state of Nevada and protect his political credibility back home. At stake is the nation's nuclear power industry and its future as a source of clean, efficient energy. Under a law passed in 1982, the plan to store all of America's proliferating nuclear waste underground at Yucca Mountain will die unless the Senate acts by July 27. But all politics is local, and Nevada -- led by the state's powerful gambling industry -- has waged a $9 million campaign against the waste repository. While government scientists find no real danger of radiation, Yucca might annoy the high rollers 90 miles away in Las Vegas. It rests on the slender shoulders of Harry Reid, who improbably has become Nevada's most influential politician since Pat McCarran a half-century ago. In a moment of exuberance as the Democrats took control of the Senate in May 2001, newly installed Majority Leader Tom Daschle and Reid committed themselves to killing Yucca. "As long as we're in the majority, it's dead," promised Daschle, in Las Vegas for a Reid fund-raiser. Daschle since then has had many other fish to fry, and it is up to Reid to redeem his rash pledge. Reid came back from a failed 1974 Senate race and a 1975 landslide loss for mayor of Las Vegas to win three razor-thin Senate elections beginning in 1986. Surprisingly elected Democratic whip in 1998, Reid has come into his own in the 14 months that Democrats have been in the majority. Unlike previous whips, Reid is an omnipresence on the Senate floor -- seeking order in an unruly chamber, praising Democratic reasonableness and deploring Republican obstructionism. He now is calling in chits to prove that influence on Capitol Hill means something for Nevada. Despite Daschle's bravado in Las Vegas, it is an uphill fight. Under the 1982 act, the Yucca proposition cannot be filibustered and needs only a simple majority. Republican John Ensign, Nevada's junior senator, recently argued that the bill's provision permitting any senator to bring up Yucca violates the modern Senate's tradition of an exclusive right for the majority leader to bring up a bill. That may foretell a vote on procedural grounds. Even a procedural vote would be difficult, with lawmakers anxious to get rid of nuclear waste stored in 39 states. The House has overridden the state of Nevada's veto of the repository, and the last Senate vote on the issue was 64 to 35 in favor of Yucca storage. All but four of 49 Republican senators are committed for Yucca this week. Besides Nevada's Ensign, Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Colo.) has always opposed Yucca, and Lincoln Chafee (R.I.) is an ardent green (while Jesse Helms (N.C.) will be absent because of illness). With 45 Republican votes against him, Reid can afford to lose only four Democrats. The majority whip dismayed the nuclear industry by winning the pledges of two freshman Democrats in return for multiple favors and lavish praise: Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) and Jean Carnahan (Mo.). He still must turn at least five of the nine senators from the Democratic caucus who voted for Yucca two years ago. The best prospects are Patty Murray (Wash.), Max Cleland (Ga.), Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Herb Kohl (Wis.) and presidential prospect John Edwards (N.C.). A less likely switcher is Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont, the nominal independent who propelled Reid into power when he crossed the aisle. Would he help Reid again even though Vermont desperately wants to get rid of its nuclear waste? In April, Jeffords told the National Journal he still supports Yucca, adding: "If there is another solution, I'm willing (to consider it). I just want to get rid of the damn stuff." That's the problem Reid faces this week as he tests the reality of his influence.