On Nuclear Waste Bill, Senators Look to Public for Help

After the Obama administration abandoned plans in 2009 to bury nuclear waste at a repository in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, a spot chosen by leading senators more than 20 years earlier, a study commission recommended that a new location be picked through “a consent-based process.”

On Thursday, a group of senators introduced a bill, the Nuclear Waste Administration Act, that would establish such a process, based in part on public comments solicited online by the bill’s sponsors – a practice generally reserved for rules proposed by federal agencies. Call it consent-based legislation.

“The Senate did something highly unusual,” said Per F. Peterson, a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, and a public policy expert. He said the way the l egislation was developed resembled the process used by the study commission, which held hearings around the country. Taking public comment “establishes a strong foundation for the legislation to be successful if passed by the Senate and then by the House,” he said.

Others are not so optimistic. In the House, there is still strong support for trying to revive the Yucca plan, first proposed in 1987. That effort would depend on the outcome of a lawsuit heard by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in May 2012. The three judges have not yet ruled.

But the Congressional process thus far has been stunning compared with the process in 1987. At that time, senators from other states that had potential sites, including Texas, Louisiana and Washington, cut a deal to choose Nevada, which was unabl e to fight it off. After Senator Harry Reid of Nevada became the Democratic leader, though, he cut off funding and the consensus fell apart.

Under the new bill, a new federal agency would be empowered to cut a deal with a state and local governments, subject to approval by Congress. It does not define the elements of such a deal, but the expectation is that the government would offer what amounted to a handsome dowry for an ugly bride: money for roads, universities or other goodies.

In the interim, the bill would allow above-ground storage of nuclear waste in a central location, a temporary resolution to a problem that has arisen as reactors retire and the waste is orphaned.

The bill was introduced by Senators Di anne Feinstein, Democrat of California and chairwoman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development; Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the subcommittee’s ranking Republican; Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon and chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee; and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the ranking Republican member.

Congress leaves town for the Fourth of July recess on Friday, but the Senate could take up the measure later this year.

In Senate Floor Speech, Rubio Explains His Immigration Push

When the Senate votes this week on legislation that would revamp the nation’s immigration laws, perhaps the most watched vote will be the one cast by Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida and a prominent Hispanic voice in his party.

On Wednesday, Mr. Rubio, an author of the bipartisan bill being debated, took to the Senate floor to explain – and at times defend – his involvement in the largest immigration overhaul in decades.

Mr. Rubio, who was elected to the Senate in 2010 on a Tea Party wave, began by acknowledging all of the phone calls and e-mail messages – not always happy ones, he noted – that he had received in recent weeks from conservatives and Tea Party activists from around the country. These constituents, he said, were “patriots” – not “anti-immigrant” or “close-minded” people, as some pro-immigration advocates have called them.

Then, Mr. Rubio turned to the current immigration system.

“W e have a badly broken legal immigration system,” he said. “And we have 11 million people living in this country illegally in de facto amnesty.”

Mr. Rubio has been closely watched throughout the entire process, and he has explained (and re-explained) his legislation to conservative television and radio hosts, not to mention his colleagues in both the Senate and the House. On Wednesday he offered further explanation as to why he chose to get involved with a bill to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws.

“This isn’t about becoming a Washington dealmaker,” he said. “Truthfully, it would have been a lot easier to just sit back, vote against any proposal and give speeches about how I would have done it differently.”

“And finally,” he added, “this certainly isn’t about gaining support for future office. Many commentators and leaders, people who I deeply respect and with whom I agree on virtually every other issue, are disappointed about my inv olvment in this debate.”

Indeed, in addition to frustrating many conservatives and Tea Party activists, Mr. Rubio split with his mentor – former Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who is now leading the charge against Mr. Rubio’s bill from his perch at the Heritage Foundation – on the topic of immigration.

“I got involved in this issue for one simple reason,” Mr. Rubio said. “I ran for office to try and fix things that are hurting this special country, and in the end, that’s what this is about for me – trying to fix a serious problem that faces America.”

The Early Word: Approved

In Today’s Times:

  • While the recently expired Supreme Court term had elements of modesty, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has been playing a long game, persuading the more liberal justices to join compromise opinions as he patiently sways the court to the right, Adam Liptak writes.
  • Federal Reserve officials worked Thursday to quell fears of a quick, early end to its stimulus campaign, saying that while they were increasingly optimistic about economic growth, the Fed would continue its effort to reduce borrowing costs as long as necessary, Binyamin Appelbaum reports.

Washington Happenings:

  • Continuing his Africa tour in Senegal on Friday, Mr. Obama will attend an event focused on food security for We st African farmers. Later, he and his family will travel to South Africa, where he will visit the United States Consulate in Johannesburg.
  • Representative Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California, and Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, Republican of Florida, will talk about what could stand in the way of Congress passing comprehensive immigration overhaul at Bloomberg Government on Friday.
  • The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is scheduled to consider a resolution on Lois Lerner, the former head of the Internal Revenue Service’s division on exempt organizations, and her potential waiver of her right not to incriminate herself at a hearing in May.

The Weekend Word: Covered

In Today’s Times

  • The Obama administration is moving forward with a rule requiring most employers to provide free insurance coverage for women’s contraceptives, in spite of strong resistance from religious groups, Robert Pear writes. The decision has touched off a legal and political battle that figured prominently in last year’s elections and is likely to rage for another year.
  • While supporters of an immigration overhaul are hardly confident, they say House Republicans will discover a crucial difference this year from failed immigration efforts of the past: The coalition behind the bill is far more energized and committed than in previous fights. The movement’s diversity gives advocates a variety of pressure points for approaching reluctant House Republicans, Julia Preston reports.
  • Whether at the White House or the grand presidential palace in Senegal, President Obama has made a point in recent weeks of reassuring Americans that he is not spying on them, Peter Baker writes. His statements reflect the sensitivity of a president elected after assailing counterterrorism policies that he ultimately adopted in some form after taking office.
  • Thousands of couples, married in one state but living in another, are caught in a confusing web of laws and regulations when moving from one part of the country to another, Sheryl Gay Stolberg reports. The Obama administration is now trying to grapple with how t o extend federal rights and benefits to same-sex couples when states, not the federal government, dictate who is married.

Weekly Address

  • President Obama used this week’s address to talk about his latest plan to combat climate change and the string of severe weather events that battered parts of the country. “The cost of these events can be measured in lost lives and livelihoods, lost homes and businesses, and hundreds of billions of dollars in emergency services and disaster relief,” he said. “The question is not whether we need to act. The question is whether we will have the courage to act before it’s too late.” He discussed a plan that would cut carbon pollution, provide more resilient infrastructure for homes and businesses, and enable the country to lead global efforts to use cleaner energy sources. “This is the fight America can and will lead in the 21 st century,” he said. “But it will require all of us, as citizens, to do our part.”

Happenings in Washington

  • Teams from each branch of the military will compete in “Grill of Honor,” a Fourth of July grilling contest judged by the celebrity guests Carson Daly and Brooklyn Decker.