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House OKs Nuclear Waste Site Bill

Nevada: Passage falls short of the two-thirds margin needed to override a veto expected from President Clinton, but still may provoke election debate.

March 23, 2000|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The House approved a Republican-backed bill Wednesday providing for nuclear waste storage in Nevada, which may spark campaign debate even though the bill faces insurmountable White House opposition.

The 253-167 House vote, just like a 64-34 vote of approval in the Senate last month, fell short of the two-thirds margin needed to override President Clinton's expected veto.

The bill would help clear the path for the nation's mounting stockpiles of waste from nuclear power plants and defense installations to be collected and buried at Yucca Mountain, Nev., starting as early as 2007. The site is about 230 miles northeast of Los Angeles and about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

The measure was bitterly opposed by Nevada's two senators and two representatives. In Nevada, where nuclear waste is the ultimate "not in my backyard" issue, supporting the Yucca Mountain bill is tantamount to political suicide.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 24, 2000 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Nuclear waste vote--A story in Thursday's Times omitted one of the California Republican House members who broke from party ranks to vote against a nuclear waste bill. Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Santa Clarita) opposed the bill, which would clear the way for storing such waste at Yucca Mountain, Nev.

But while leading Nevada Republicans--including candidates the GOP hopes can win a Senate seat and a House seat in the state this year--oppose the Yucca Mountain plan, Wednesday's vote showed that most of the party's leaders are squarely behind it.

Republicans in Congress said that Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, would look more favorably upon the bill than Vice President Al Gore, his expected Democratic foe. Bush spokesman Scott McClellan had no immediate comment Wednesday. According to reports in Nevada newspapers, Bush has not taken a position on the issue.

Gore and the Clinton administration oppose the bill on the grounds that it fails to give the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to set stringent radiation standards.

But Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) said the bill would help the environment by allowing the government to collect lethal waste, now scattered nationwide, in one secure spot. To do otherwise, he said, would pose a serious public safety threat. "To me it's an absolute no-brainer," Dreier said.

Dreier, chairman of the House Rules Committee, played a key role in the bill's passage by taking parliamentary steps to squelch alternative proposals.

Backers said the measure is desperately needed to help consolidate tens of thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel and other waste that have piled up in dozens of sites across the country since World War II. In addition, they said, the government may be exposed to billions of dollars in legal claims for failing to live up to its obligations to store spent nuclear waste.

Opponents charged that the bill would do nothing to protect communities on the routes of trucks and railroads carrying the potentially lethal loads to Nevada.

"It's going to impact thousands and thousands of people," said Rep. Joe Baca (D-San Bernardino), who complained that highways from Southern California to the Yucca Mountain region cut through the desert in his district. "I'm appalled when I think in terms of what may happen if there were a catastrophe in that area."

But with a Clinton veto all but assured, the real impact of Wednesday's vote may be its impact on the November elections. John Ensign, a former House member, is one of the GOP's best hopes to pick up a seat in the Senate--he is the front-runner in the race to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Richard Bryan. But as he campaigns, he will have to explain to voters why his party supports a measure most Nevadans oppose. So will GOP state Sen. Jon Porter, who hopes to unseat Democratic freshman Rep. Shelley Berkley.

Also, Bush eventually will have to answer questions about the issue if he hopes to have a chance at Nevada's four electoral votes. Jim Gibbons, Nevada's Republican congressman, said that he has spoken to Bush and that the governor has promised to have an open-door policy on the matter.

In Wednesday's vote, 53 Democrats and one independent joined 199 Republicans in favor of the bill. Among California's 28 House Democrats, only Matthew G. Martinez of Monterey Park voted for it.

Eighteen Republicans and one independent joined 148 Democrats in opposition. Among California's 24 House Republicans, Steven T. Kuykendall of Rancho Palos Verdes and George P. Radanovich of Mariposa opposed the bill.

Reps. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), Ed Royce (R-Fullerton) and Wally Herger (R-Marysville) did not vote.

In the House, 290 votes are required to override a veto if all 435 members are present, and in the Senate, 67.

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