Senate Cuts Spending for Nuclear Dump at Nevada's Yucca Mountain

The Senate voted Monday to cut significantly the budget for the troubled Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump as negotiators tried to finalize several other spending bills before stopgap funding expires.

WASHINGTON — The Senate voted Monday to cut significantly the budget for the troubled Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump as negotiators tried to finalize several other spending bills before stopgap funding expires.

The $450 million Yucca Mountain budget -- down $127 million from each of the last two years -- is included in a final bill funding energy and water programs for fiscal 2006, which cleared the Senate by an 84-4 vote. Senate negotiators immediately headed to a House meeting room for talks on two other bills.

The urgency comes as lawmakers try to wrap up work on the 11 spending bills comprising the approximately one-third of the federal budget that Congress passes each year. After years of consistent increases, the overall budget for domestic agencies -- with the exception of the Homeland Security Department -- is essentially frozen or even slightly below last year's levels.

The Senate vote clears the sixth of 11 spending bills for President Bush's signature. Lawmakers hope to complete action on remaining domestic bills by Friday, when a bill funding agency budgets on a stopgap basis expires. The temporary funding bill has been in place since the budget year began Oct. 1.

The advances on the appropriations bills contrasts with the difficulties House leaders have had in passing $50 billion-plus in cuts over five years to so-called mandatory spending -- the approximately 55 percent of the budget for programs like Medicare and Medicaid that goes up automatically each year. GOP leaders scrapped plans for a vote last week.


Meanwhile, a $453 billion defense measure, though nearly complete, is being held in reserve despite protests from the Pentagon. GOP leaders may use the politically unstoppable bill to carry other legislative freight.

The Yucca nuclear waste repository in Nevada would be funded at $450 million for the 2006 budget year. Bill negotiators also ditched a controversial House plan to supplement Yucca with interim storage sites for nuclear waste.

The final figure was also less than the House and the Senate passed during earlier debates. More delays in the oft-delayed project caused lawmakers to curb Yucca Mountain's budget.

Those cuts helped free up funds for the Corps of Engineers, which received $5.6 billion, $1 billion above Bush's request. That includes $8 million requested by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., for the Corps to design a plan to bring south Louisiana up to Category Five hurricane protection.

The bill also kills off a program to study and develop a "bunker buster" nuclear warhead, ending a three-year battle between the Pentagon and lawmakers opposed to the project. Opponents have argued it would send the wrong nuclear nonproliferation message to the world. Instead the administration plans to pursue a conventional weapon that can penetrate hardened underground targets.

But the White House is showing much less flexibility on numerous other battles playing out on the other spending bills.

The White House, working in concert with House GOP leaders, has forced the Senate to give up on a series of budget tricks it used to add funding for programs favored by lawmakers. The Senate has had to relent on plans to transfer $7 billion from defense to domestic programs.

Senators also abandoned more than $3 billion made available through an accounting gimmick for programs including health research, medical training and heating subsidies for the poor. That move came as House-Senate negotiators worked on a sweeping measure providing $143 billion in discretionary funding for labor, health and education programs.

Without the extra cash, however, lawmakers were unable to fulfill funding promises made under Bush's landmark No Child Left Behind education bill. And research funding for the National Institutes of Health would be virtually frozen.

Programs funded by the education and health bill faced a $1.1 billion cut over last year's levels once $800 million in extra costs to implement to new prescription drug benefit are factored in.

The energy bill also would:

--Provide $220 million, about a third what the administration had sought, to build a plant at the DOE's Savannah River complex in South Carolina to convert excess weapons-grade plutonium to a mix-oxide fuel for use in a commercial reactor.

--Provide $130 million for various Energy Department programs for research into the nuclear fuel cycle for commercial power plants, including money to look into the feasibility of fuel reprocessing, which was abandoned by the United States in the 1970s because of nuclear proliferation risks.

Source: Associated Press

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