LAS VEGAS — Nevada's most powerful congressional ally in the fight to stop a federal nuclear waste dump near Las Vegas on Wednesday backed off his pledge to kill the project in the Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said he is powerless under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 to block a vote on the Yucca Mountain project.
"I was not aware that this legislation, when we drafted it decades ago, is under an expedited procedure," Daschle said at a news conference in Washington.
Daschle referred to his declaration May 30, 2001, in Las Vegas that he and Harry Reid of Nevada, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, would kill the Yucca Mountain plan if it reached the Senate.
"As long as we're in the majority, it's dead," Daschle said at the time.
"Well," the ranking Democrat in the Senate said Wednesday, "the expedited procedure precludes me from keeping it from coming to the floor."
Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) insisted Wednesday that Daschle has the power to use his majority party power to quash Yucca Mountain.
"Tom Daschle made a very clear statement that Yucca is dead as long as he's the majority leader," Ensign said during a conference call from Washington. "If Tom Daschle keeps his word, the state of Nevada will not have nuclear waste. All he has to do is not allow that veto override to come to the floor."
But Daschle and Reid say Nevada will lose the last legislative battle in the Yucca Mountain fight unless Ensign marshals enough GOP votes to augment the thin Democratic majority in the Senate.
If Daschle can't use a parliamentary maneuver to stop it, the crucial decision will be a majority Senate vote on whether to uphold Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn's promised veto of President Bush's approval for the Yucca Mountain project.
"It's a final vote," Ensign said. "I agree that I need to work my rear end off to get more votes."
Bush approved the site Feb. 15. Guinn has until April 16 to exercise his veto, and Congress will have 90 days to vote on the Yucca Mountain plan. Nevada lawmakers concede they do not have enough support in the House to stop the project.
Ensign would not say how many votes he can muster. The lawmaker said two Republicans who have sided with him in the past to oppose Yucca Mountain are Sens. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island.
The Energy Department plans to ship 77,000 tons of radioactive waste from more than 100 commercial, industrial and military reactor sites to Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.