Objections to defense bill result in threat of Bush veto

WASHINGTON — White House officials on Tuesday threatened to have President Bush veto a giant defense bill in part because it could reduce spending for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site.

The cut for the proposed Nevada repository was among more than 30 objections the White House lodged against the $543 billion bill.

The defense authorization bill sets pay raises for the military, steers policy on a range of defense matters and authorizes programs run by the Pentagon.

The Senate passes the massive defense bill each year. In most years, repository opponents Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., slice off a share of Yucca Mountain funding almost as a matter of routine.

The veto threat was the first time in memory that the White House has made Yucca Mountain a sticking point in the defense bill.

The sudden focus comes as the Bush administration took significant steps forward with the repository project this summer.

“This is a milestone in them using (Yucca Mountain) to justify vetoing this legislation,” said David Cherry, communications director for Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev.

The Senate voted on Monday to open debate on the bill, but the veto threat could complicate passage.

The Office of Management and Budget in a seven-page statement said the White House also opposes provisions on Iraq, intelligence matters, defense contracting, health issues and changes in several weapons programs.

Reid, the Senate majority leader, said the veto threat is another example of Republicans holding up important legislation.

“The defense authorization bill has passed here for the last 50 years, but it appears the … Republican Senate is going to even stop that from passing,” Reid said.

While the Department of Energy manages the Yucca Mountain program, the Pentagon pays for a portion of it because the planned repository about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas would store radioactive spent fuel from nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers.

The Defense Department requested Congress authorize $247.4 million as the Pentagon’s share for the upcoming year. The Senate bill calls for $197.4 million.

In the veto message, the White House budget office said the $50 million reduction “would severely hinder progress” in gaining a repository construction license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

“Fully funding this project is vital to ensuring the expanded use of nuclear power in the coming decades to meet our national and energy security needs,” it stated.

After years of delay, the Department of Energy in June filed for a Yucca Mountain Project construction license, a significant step.

The NRC on Monday announced the DOE application will be docketed for technical studies and an eventual licensing decision.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760.

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