As they fight to keep their jobs past November, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and his third-ranked lieutenant, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), find themselves battling each other in the Capitol over the fate of a controversial nuclear waste site in Reid's backyard.
Reid has worked for years to try to kill the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository and now has the support of the Obama administration. But Murray announced plans this week to offer an amendment that would resume the process of readying the site — 100 miles from Las Vegas — to accept the nation's nuclear waste.
In particular, Murray wants the nuclear waste removed from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Richland, Wash. She said Hanford is one of the most polluted areas in the country and that nuclear waste has been leaking into the Columbia River for decades.
"We have been working for a very long time to contain that waste and to put it into safe storage," she said. "If we get to a place where we've contained it and we can't store it — it's sitting right next to the Columbia River — we can't have that."
But Reid has promised to kill the Yucca facility once and for all.
"As the senior Senator from Nevada, Reid knows that Yucca Mountain is not the answer to our nation's problem of dealing with nuclear waste, and as long as he is Senate Majority Leader, Yucca Mountain will never be built," Reid spokesman Tom Brede said.
The issue is tricky for both Senators, who face tough elections this year and need to show constituents that they can influence the process to their states' advantage.
But both Reid and Murray contend the issue has not affected their generally good working relationship.
"This is not a new issue for Harry and I," Murray said Wednesday. "I voted to keep Yucca Mountain open years ago. He and I have talked about this issue many, many times, you know, and we both understand our states' interests on this and agree to disagree on the larger issue. And I expect him to fight for his state and he expects me to fight for mine."
Brede added, "The two Senators work very well together, but this is one issue where they happen to disagree."
Brede would not say how Reid planned to kill Murray's newest proposal nor whether she had notified the Majority Leader of her plans ahead of time.
But Murray said she told Reid months ago that she would be pushing the issue this year, given the Energy Department's decision to take Yucca Mountain off the table as a potential repository. A presidential "blue ribbon commission" has been instructed to find sites other than Yucca Mountain that are suitable for handling nuclear waste.
Back in Nevada, Reid has been running ads touting his success in killing the Yucca Mountain project, given the Energy Department's moves to eliminate the program. Reid has also been criticized over potential job losses at the site while the state's unemployment rate runs at 14 percent.
[IMGCAP(1)]Still, Reid has tried to take advantage of Nevadans' general opposition to the project by pointing out that his opponent, Republican Sharron Angle, supports opening the repository.
As one of the most endangered incumbents this election cycle, Reid has spent the better part of the past year and a half battling sinking poll numbers and popularity in his state, but his fortunes improved in a poll last week that showed him beating Angle.
Murray did not appear to have a tough race until polls in Washington state earlier this year showed her popularity slipping. Then, perennial statewide candidate and well-known Republican Dino Rossi jumped into the race. Murray needs a strong showing in the state's Aug. 17 open primary to beat back the notion that she is vulnerable.
Failure to get Yucca ready to accept waste from Hanford has been a Rossi talking point against Murray.
"Sen. Murray has finally responded to Dino Rossi's request that she take immediate action to ensure there is no delay in getting nuclear waste out of Washington State by restoring funding to Yucca Mountain," Rossi spokeswoman Jennifer Morris said in a statement this week. "For all Washingtonians who want to see nuclear waste out of Hanford, we can only hope Senator Murray's decision to finally put Washington state ahead of Senator Reid's political fortunes isn't just a desperate election year conversion."
Murray's campaign has vigorously objected to the notion that Rossi's recent push on the issue has anything to do with her recent efforts.
"The reality is that Patty Murray has been fighting for Hanford cleanup for years," Murray campaign spokeswoman Julie Edwards said.
Her campaign points out that Murray has been unafraid to take on her own leadership, given that in 2002 she was one of only five Democrats who supported designating Yucca Mountain as the repository site. Murray and others in the delegation earlier this month sent a letter to the Energy Department calling for the administration to let legal battles on Yucca Mountain play out before trying to close the facility.
Rep. Doc Hastings, who joined Murray on that letter, said Wednesday that the issue is a sensitive one in the state but declined to say how it might affect Murray's fate in November.
"I can't judge how it's playing in her Senate race," the Washington Republican said. "But I know in my district the issue of closing Yucca Mountain is very, very bad policy. When she joined me in signing that letter, along with other Senators and Members, that was a positive thing. But I can't tell you how that's going to play."
The Obama administration has called for zeroing out funding for Yucca Mountain and has attempted to withdraw the previous administration's application for license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but the issue remains mired in federal courts.
In June, an NRC legal analysis said the Obama administration could not withdraw the license application for Yucca Mountain.
At today's Senate Appropriations Committee markup of the Energy and water spending bill, Murray hopes to add $200 million to keep the licensing process alive. But on Wednesday, she downplayed her hopes of success.
"It's going to be very hard to do, but I think it's important," she said.
Kathleen Hunter contributed to this report.