Aiming where it hurts, Senate Republicans warned Sen. Harry Reid on Tuesday that efforts to curb the filibuster could boomerang on him and lead to the resurrection of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project in Nevada.
GOP senators delivered a not-so-veiled threat: Restarting the mothballed nuclear waste repository would be near the top of their to-do list if the 60-vote threshold on Senate votes is abolished.
“Make no mistake, a vote to end the filibuster is a vote to complete Yucca Mountain,” Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said in a speech. “We could get a bipartisan majority of 51 votes today in the United States Senate.”
Alexander repeated his point later to reporters, along with saying Republicans could use the 51-vote majority rule to kill Obamacare and restructure federal school aid into vouchers and scholarships.
“If we have 51 votes, we can order the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to issue a (Yucca Mountain) license, we can order the Department of Energy to build it, and we can fund it,” Alexander said.
Reid refused to take the bait.
“The Republicans have been marching to the floor for a week or two talking about me, and I’m not going to respond to it,” he said in a meeting with reporters.
NOMINATION BATTLE ESCALATES
The comments mark an escalation in the fight simmering for months as Democrats charge Republicans with blocking President Barack Obama’s nominees to head the Department of Labor and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, among other posts.
Reid, the Senate majority leader from Nevada, has warned he might take action to change Senate rules to do away with the 60-vote threshold to pass judges and executive branch nominations.
Employing a procedure that has been nicknamed the “nuclear option,” Reid could force through a change with a simple majority vote, as opposed to the 67 votes that otherwise are required to change Senate rules.
The threat has triggered a backlash from Republicans, who accuse Reid of being on the verge of reneging on a promise they said he made this year to avoid the nuclear option.
Republicans have pointed out that in 2005, when the shoe was on the other foot and Democrats were in the minority, Reid fought a Republican bid to invoke the nuclear option on judicial nominations.
On the Senate floor, Alexander read from Reid’s 2007 book, “The Good Fight,” in which the Nevadan wrote that eliminating the filibuster on judges would “open a Pandora’s box.” It would just be a matter of time until it was eliminated for regular business as well, “and that, simply put, would be the end of the United States Senate,” he wrote.
Reid has responded that the Senate has been crippled with “unprecedented obstruction” in recent years that warrants reconsidering the filibuster.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Tuesday that there would be no stopping at judges and Cabinet secretaries if the filibuster rules change.
“There is not a doubt in my mind that if the majority leader breaks the rules of the Senate to change the rules of the Senate with regards to nominations, the next Senate will do it for anything,” McConnell said. “I don’t know what the future holds, but two years from now I could be setting the agenda around here.”
Republicans sought to advance comments made this week by Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev. He said he worries that Nevada as a small state would come out on the short end of the stick if the filibuster is weakened.
“The day is going to come that either (Reid’s) not here or the Republicans take control, and if it’s a 50-vote threshold, those kind of issues are the ones that concern me the most,” Heller was quoted by the Washington Examiner.
“When you’re from a small state, you need as many arrows in your quiver as possible to fight back on some of these issues that you can be overtaken by. And, frankly, this 60-vote threshold is what has protected and saved Nevada in the past.”
Heller on Tuesday joined fellow Republicans in urging Reid to forgo the nuclear option.
“For years, members of the entire Nevada delegation have put aside our political jerseys and worked together to ensure that the Yucca Mountain waste site would never open,” Heller said in a statement.
“It is important that Nevadans know that the inside-the-Beltway debate about Senate rules could have very serious ramifications for Nevada and the opening of Yucca Mountain.”
Reid has used his influence as Senate leader to persuade the Obama administration to terminate the Yucca Mountain project, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, and to keep it that way by ensuring no money is approved for a restart and by encouraging senators to pursue alternatives to dispose of the nation’s high-level nuclear waste.
REPOSITORY BACKERS STILL PUSHING
The Senate has not held a Yucca Mountain vote since a repository bill passed 60-39 in July 2002, officials said.
That has not stopped elements in the nuclear industry and lawmakers from nuclear reactor states from continuing to push for the project.
As part of an annual exercise, a Republican-led House subcommittee on Tuesday approved $25 million in a 2014 energy spending bill to restart licensing for Yucca Mountain, including $5 million for Nevada counties that would be affected by the project.
“Someday people may thank us for keeping (the Yucca project) alive,” said Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., the chairman of the House energy and water subcommittee.
“We as taxpayers have invested about $15 billion” in the program, Frelinghuysen said. “While I am aware of the home-state anxiety, concern and opposition, we have an obligation to see what we can do to move a permanent repository forward.”
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at email@example.com or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.