WASHINGTON — The House delivered what was probably a mortal blow to the superconducting super collider Tuesday, voting overwhelmingly to halt construction of the world's largest atom-smasher against the wishes of President Clinton and a Senate-House conference committee.
The extraordinary 282-143 vote almost certainly means that the Texas collider project is dead. Although the Senate still must formally agree to halt construction, the leading Senate champion of the project, J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), virtually conceded defeat.
Johnston called the House decision "clear and unmistakable" and indicated that he would give up the lengthy fight over one of America's major scientific investments. The Senate had recently voted, 57 to 42, to allocate $640 million for the controversial project.
"Today is a sad day for science," Johnston said. "The demise of the (collider) undoubtedly will mean the demise of other good science projects. How can this country begin another big science project if this successful project is terminated 10 years and $2 billion after its inception?"
Opponents, however, said that the nation could not afford the project, contending that its costs had escalated out of control and would add about $10 billion to the federal deficit without adequate assurances of scientific results.
"This is good science, but it is not priority science," said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), a leading opponent of the project. "The issue is whether we're going to do business as usual or change in order to reduce the deficit."
Elimination of the super collider would represent the largest single budget cut that Congress has made in a year when congressional reductions in spending have become commonplace.
"The mood of the House continues to be to take large chunks out of the budget," said Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D-Colton), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and a strong supporter of the project.
The super collider was designed to allow scientists to observe the collision of atomic particles at extremely high speeds in hopes of discovering the composition of matter and providing clues to the origin of the universe.
The huge project is about one-fifth completed. By mid-summer, crews working six days a week had built 11 miles of the planned 54-mile circular tunnel that would house the collider.
The House moved to kill the project June 24, voting, 280 to 150, to knock out funds for the collider only to have the money restored in a Senate-House conference committee on a $22-billion appropriation bill for energy and water projects.
But when the conference report was presented to the House Tuesday, opponents of the collider defied the House leadership by winning a key procedural vote, 264 to 159.
In a quick follow-up, the House then voted to send the bill back to the Senate-House conference with instructions that negotiators delete funds for the project.
An unusual coalition, cutting across party and ideological lines, joined the revolt. A total of 166 Democrats, 115 Republicans and one independent voted to stop work on the collider, while 98 Democrats and 61 Republicans voted for the project.
In Texas, a spokesman for the collider project said: "Clearly, this is a devastating blow."
Clinton declared the collider a priority of his Administration in a letter sent to Capitol Hill last week. "The (super collider) represents not only the culmination of high-energy physics research in the 20th Century but also the cornerstone of continued American international scientific leadership in the century to follow," the President wrote.
But the President did not take a high-profile role in the debate or lobby heavily for funding.
Asked for reaction to Tuesday's vote, White House official said that they would withhold comment until they have had more time to review the congressional action.
Foes of the super collider argued that other scientific research--especially at the National Institutes of Health--was being squeezed out because of the collider's heavy drain on available funds.
Johnston said that he and other Senate-House conferees would now bow to the House's wishes. Senate sources said there was no way to keep the collider alive after the overwhelming House vote.
Both supporters and opponents of the project, however, said that they expect Congress to approve funds to terminate contracts and wind up construction at the site in Waxahachie, about 45 miles south of Dallas.
Before Johnston issued his statement, advocates and opponents of the project said that the outlook was unclear, or, as one congressional aide put it: "It's definitely a question of who blinks first."
While proponents argued that the collider was an important advance for high-energy physics, foes claimed that initial estimates of $4.4 billion only five years ago had skyrocketed to more than $11 billion and likely would go higher.