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In the latest flare-up of a long-running fight, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is once again blocking action on dozens of President Bush’s nominees for executive branch posts until the Senate approves the nomination of one of Reid’s aides for a seat on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Reid’s move threatens to unravel a deal he struck last year with the White House on Greg Jaczko, a Reid staffer and nuclear physicist who has been chosen as a Democratic nominee for the NRC. Bush nominated Jaczko in February for a Democratic slot on the five-member commission, but the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee — after hearing intense opposition from the nuclear-power industry — has not yet cleared his nomination.
A Republican nominee for the NRC, retired Navy Vice Adm. John Grossenbacher, withdrew from consideration in April after Democrats stalled his nomination for seven months, and no replacement has been named yet. EPW Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) has said he will not move the Jaczko nomination unless he can pair it up with a Republican selection. At this time, only three out of the five seats on the NRC are filled.
In retaliation for Inhofe’s decision to delay action on Jaczko, Reid will now move to place “holds” on all non-defense, non-judicial nominations sent to the Senate by the White House until Jaczko is approved.
“Dr. Jaczko has that rare combination of policy and scientific expertise. He is eminently qualified to serve as a member of the NRC, and has been nominated by the White House,” Reid said. “Despite all this, the Republicans have yet to move on his nomination. So I have decided to put a hold on all non-military, nonjudicial nominees until Dr. Jaczko is confirmed.”
Reid’s blanket hold could delay dozens of nominations for a range of federal departments and agencies, including Commerce, Education, Energy, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, State and Transportation, among others.
Right now, Reid has holds on two nominees for positions with the Environmental Protection Agency: Steve Johnson, who has been nominated to the agency’s deputy administrator, and Ben Grumbles, the nominee for assistant administrator for water. Two other EPA nominees who had been stalled by Reid holds received recess appointments from Bush.
Reid has also been bottling up EPW legislation. Inhofe has countered that he is prepared to live with two open seats at the NRC “for a while.”
Reid, however, faces intense behind-the-scenes opposition to Jaczko’s nomination from the nuclear-power industry. The industry is incensed at Reid’s longstanding opposition to the construction of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, located 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
The NRC has authority over licensing for the Yucca Mountain site, which Congress approved in July 2002 as the permanent repository for more than 40,000 tons of nuclear waste, over the vehement objection of Reid and other Nevada lawmakers from both parties.
Utility companies that operate nuclear power plants, including the Southern Company, Entergy Corp. and FPL Group Inc., are working to defeat Jaczko’s nomination, and have urged GOP and Democratic Senators to oppose his selection.
John Pemberton, a former Environmental Protection Agency official who is now a lobbyist for the Southern Co., recently attended a Senate GOP legislative strategy meeting and urged Republican staffers to convince their bosses to reject Jaczko’s nomination, Senate sources said.
Pemberton received heavy criticism from environmental groups when he left EPA for Southern last September — especially since some of his decisions while at the agency had a direct impact on the industry operations.
Jaczko, a nuclear physicist who now handles appropriations issues for Reid, was chosen as the Democratic nominee for the NRC in March 2003 by Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).
But the White House initially objected to Jaczko, and the nomination remained in limbo until Reid retaliated in early September by blocking other Bush nominees, including the appointment of former Utah Gov. Michael Levitt (R) as EPA administrator. The White House then cut a deal with Reid and agreed to support Jaczko’s nomination. Jaczko, in turn, has pledged to recuse himself from any votes on Yucca Mountain-related issues for one year if he is confirmed.
Reid sees the latest delay on Jaczko as a violation of his earlier agreement with the White House. The Nevada Democrat wants the Bush administration to work to free up Jaczko’s nomination.
Senate Republicans suggested that Reid’s blanket hold on executive branch nominees was overkill, since Democrats have already stalled a number of Bush’s choices for office.
“The Democrats have been blocking all sorts of Republican nominations for months,” said a Senate GOP aide. “It’s a little disingenuous for them to crying foul now.” Another Republican leadership aide suggested blanket holds are “counter productive” since it would slow Senate action on all fronts, including the confirmation of other Democratic nominees.
A nuclear industry lobbyist, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said his company has been assured by the White House that the deal with Reid only covered Jaczko’s nomination, not his approval by the Senate.
Jaczko “has a bias against nuclear,” said the industry official. “One commissioner at the NRC can cause a lot of problems for the industry. We don’t want him to be a commissioner at all.”
Industry officials, feeling like they have strong backing from Republicans in opposition to Jaczko, are asking for help from Senate Democrats from the South and Northeast who have nuclear power plants in their states.
“If we can block Jaczko, it’s going to come from the Democratic side,” the official said.
But any Democrat who crosses Reid on this issue could face retribution down the road. Reid, in addition to being a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, may end up as Democratic leader if Daschle were to step down or lose his re-election bid in November — and Reid is unlikely to forget those who go against him on the Jaczko nomination.
Reid and the rest of the Nevada delegation have also sought to cut funding for the Yucca Mountain project, and they appear to be winning that fight. The White House asked for $880 million for Yucca next year, but the fiscal 2005 energy and water appropriations bill under consideration by the House would only provide $131 million. Most of the money that the Bush administration sought was supposed to have come from a $15 billion Nuclear Waste Fund, which contains money paid by utility companies.
But legislation authorizing use of those funds is thought to have little chance of being enacted this year, and appropriators have focused on other needs instead. And with Reid sitting on the Senate Appropriations Committee, the Energy Department is not going to receive any more support for its funding request in that chamber.