Sen. John Edwards's first big test as a would-be presidential candidate was the ongoing debate about Yucca Mountain, Nevada, and storage there of nuclear waste. And he apparently did the right thing. But not without a bit of drama.
Edwards was seen a potential swing vote in yesterday's Senate vote which by 60-39 affirmed Yucca Mountain as the sole repository of nuclear waste for U.S.-based facilities. Back in 2000, he'd announced his opposition to Yucca, then several months later flip-flopped and voted for it.
But who's to say a guy can't change his mind a second or third time? Environmental groups had expended a lot of energy meeting with Edwards and his staff, but evidently those meetings fell short. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce had made a moderate media buy in the Tarheel state, running radio ads touting Yucca Mountain. Those ads were a clear reminder to Edwards that the business community, with all its donors, was watching his vote.
His Yucca vote won't endear him to enviro groups, but it will endear him to homestate voters, who'll be glad to see their nuclear waste going out of state. And more important to a presidential aspirant, this is one vote that won't come back to haunt Edwards.
"If he'd flipped on this one, it wouldn't have been a huge deal in the short-term, but it might have been something held against him in a presidential campaign," says an Edwards adviser. "Those flip-flop issues always have a way of popping up on the trail."
While Edwards may have passed his test, it isn't clear that Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada passed his. Reid, who serves as Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's No. 2, and who is influential in the Senate appropriations process, was doing everything he could to buy votes to block Yucca Mountain's approval in the Senate and keep nuclear waste out of his state.
According to Senate sources, Reid was offering individual senators special appropriations funding for pet projects and new, improved committee assignments in return for their votes. Those less receptive to sugar got the heat. Reid is said to have threatened several Democratic colleagues with loss of Senate subcommittee chairmanships if they didn't vote his way.
In the end, Reid's arm twisting and cajoling didn't appear to carry much weight, which has to be frustrating and worrisome to him. Right?
"He expended a lot of energy and doesn't have anything to show for it," says one Democratic Senate staffer. "But this was such a hot potato issue for many of the guys, it isn't like we're talking about a budget deal. This wasn't going to be an easy issue to buy a vote or two. Reid's influence can't be judged on this one."
But others disagree. Some Democratic staffers say that Reid tends to pull out the hammer for votes, using threats and strong-arm tactics to keep the Democrats in line. "He's not the most popular guy in the Senate from a personality level," says another Democratic staffer. "I think a more popular deputy leader might have done better with an issue like Yucca, especially when you think about the fact that this was something everyone knew was important to him personally."
Still others say it's all hogwash. "It says more about the slim margin the Democrats have than anything about Reid," says a Republican staffer. "He's liked just fine, but when you have a one or two seat margin of error, you have to play hardball to keep those votes in line. It isn't easy, but that is what a leader has to do."
As for Yucca, the debate isn't over. The Senate vote simply re-affirmed the Nevada site as the sole repository of nuclear waste for the nation. Yucca Mountain must now file for an operating license with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Lawsuits from its opponents are expected to drag the debate out perhaps for years.
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