A month after the House passed a landmark bill on nuclear waste, frustration has set in for congressional backers of the proposed Yucca Mountain spent fuel repository in Nevada as they come up against familiar legislative and political roadblocks.
The tension boiled over last night when Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), the architect of H.R. 3053, engaged with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on the House floor in what several witnesses described as an argument.
"Tell me why I'm wrong, Paul," Shimkus said, one earwitness wrote on Twitter.
Talking to reporters today, the Illinois Republican declined to elaborate.
"We just had a personal discussion on the floor that got a little heated," Shimkus said. His and Ryan's offices both did not respond to requests for comment.
But other members of Congress said the fight was over Yucca Mountain and the timing of the passage of the energy and water appropriations bill.
Shimkus has fought to advance the project, which has been stalled by opposition from Nevada lawmakers for decades, and H.R. 3053, which passed the House easily in May, would — among other things — expedite the licensing process for the facility (Greenwire, May 10).
But the project's backers have struggled to find success in the appropriations process to approve funding for that licensing work, particularly in the Senate, where opposition from Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller has proved a key roadblock.
"I think there's a concern that if we do the energy and water bill, get it finished in conference before the November election, we won't get Yucca Mountain in it because of the politics in the Senate. We don't want to see that happen," Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), chairman of the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, told reporters today.
The prevailing theory among Yucca observers is that Senate leadership is keeping Yucca funding out of the chamber's spending bill to give Heller — rated as one of the most vulnerable Republican senators up for election — a legislative victory to campaign on.
"There is support for it," Simpson said at a Rules Committee hearing yesterday, citing the 340-72 vote on H.R. 3053 and past votes in the Senate, which he said have earned as many as 70 senators supporting the project.
"It's been politics that's stopped it more than anything else," Simpson said.
The battle over the project looks set to continue.
When asked this morning whether the disagreement had been settled between him and Ryan, Shimkus said, "No, not yet."
The spat with Ryan earned him praise from at least one colleague today.
"There's nobody more passionate about trying to find permanent nuclear waste storage than John Shimkus," said Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, who said that calling the conversation a "fight" would be an overstatement.