Senate passes energy and water bill

July 29, 2009 6:55:25 PM PDT
The Senate on Wednesday passed a $34.3 billion energy spending bill that backs up President Barack Obama's promise to close the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste facility in Nevada. The bill, passed by a 85-9 vote, also covers hundreds of water projects being undertaken by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The Yucca Mountain project 90 miles from Las Vegas was designed to hold 77,000 tons of waste, but has been strongly opposed by the Nevada delegation, which had been outgunned in its efforts to kill it.

The move fulfills a campaign promise by Obama to close Yucca Mountain, which was 25 years and $13.5 billion in the making. It would, however, leave the country without a long-term solution for storing highly radioactive waste from nuclear power plants.

The waste disposal problem has become worse since the federal government scrapped plans to open Yucca Mountain. Instead, radioactive fuel rods are now stored in large concrete and steel canisters on the grounds of nuclear plants around the country.

The 1987 law requiring waste to be stored at Yucca Mountain law remains on the books, however, so the project could in theory be revived.

The Senate also adopted an amendment by California Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer to allow for water transfers to help farmers in California's Central Valley suffering from severe drought conditions.

"I view this as a breakthrough in the water wars in California," Boxer said. "We were able to bring environmentalists together with the water districts."

The provision would facilitate transfer of water from the eastern portion of the valley to the western part of the San Joaquin Valley particularly affected by a multiyear drought. Comparable language is in a House measure that passed two weeks ago.

The underlying bipartisan measure has money for a wide variety of programs, including clean energy research, and has more than 600 so-called earmarks for lawmakers, mostly for Army Corps of Engineers projects.

Unlike virtually every other spending bill moving through Congress for the 2010 budget year that begins Oct. 1, the measure essentially freezes spending for the programs covered by it. Most of the other spending bills contain spending increases far exceeding inflation.

But the corps and the Energy Department got almost $60 billion in February's economic stimulus bill. The government has been slow to spend the money, with lawmakers especially unhappy over foot-dragging on water projects.

Earlier Wednesday, transportation and housing programs received generous funding increases under draft legislation adopted by a Senate Appropriation panel.

Grants for mass transit programs fare especially well, while Obama's high-speed rail program wouldn't get nearly the increases sought by the House in companion legislation that passed that chamber last week.

The $117 billion transportation and housing measure is one of 12 annual spending bills setting agency operating budgets for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.

For programs directly appropriated by the transportation and housing measure, there's a 23 percent increase over current levels - if the stimulus funding isn't included in calculations.

The bill adds $480 million, or 26 percent to Obama's request for new or expanded grants to local governments for mass transit programs such as purchases of new cleaner-fueled buses. There's also a $500 million increase above current levels for airport construction and improvements.

But in providing $1.2 billion for high-speed rail programs, the Senate is falling well short of the House, which added $4 billion for the new program - on top of $8 billion provided in the stimulus bill. Obama requested $1 billion.

And the bill provides Obama's request of $175 million for a much-criticized program that subsidizes rural air travel. The 40 percent increase for the Essential Air Service would help entice small airlines to fly unprofitable routes to places such as Scottsbluff, Neb., Vernal, Utah, and Jamestown, N.Y.

Many critics regard the program as a boondoggle that deeply subsidizes nearly empty flights. The Obama administration has promised reforms but has yet to send lawmakers any ideas on how to fix the program.

The troubled Washington Metro system would also get a $150 million capital infusion to make repairs and replace rail cars. The system has long-overdue maintenance needs and recently experienced a crash that killed nine people.

The subsidy for the Amtrak passenger railroad, always a battle under the administration of George W. Bush, would be $1.5 billion, in line with current funding and Obama's request.

Highway funds for the states, however, would remain flat under the measure, which caps spending from the Highway Trust Fund at $42.5 billion, a 4 percent increase. The spending measure doesn't provide the highway money; it instead comes from gasoline taxes.

But with gas tax revenues slumping, the trust fund is about to go broke. The Senate's move came as the House passed a bill to transfer $7 billion from the general treasury to shore up the highway fund through Sept. 30.

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