A simmering proxy fight between the top Republican and Democrat in the Senate spilled onto the chamber floor Wednesday when Minority Leader Mitch McConnell accused opponents of stonewalling a female appointee to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission because she blew the whistle on bullying by the commission's male chairman, a longtime Democratic staffer.
But Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democrats' leader and a former boss of NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, said the nominee whom Mr. McConnell and the Republicans are pushing — Kristine Svinicki — lied about her work on a controversial nuclear-waste program and has shown a disregard for nuclear-safety issues.
Caught in the middle is President Obama, who, if he follows tradition, would submit Ms. Svinicki's nomination to the Senate as a courtesy to Mr. McConnell. But the president also likely faces pressure from Mr. Reid to reject her and insist that the Republicans offer someone else.
"For some mysterious reason, she's being held up for renomination," Mr. McConnell said, pushing the behind-the-scenes fight to the forefront. "She's been ready to go for more than a year. There is no legitimate reason for Commissioner Svinicki not to have been renominated and reconfirmed by now. And any further delay is unacceptable."
The NRC oversees civilian nuclear power plants. Its role has come under sharper focus after the Fukushima plant in Japan suffered a partial meltdown last year.
It is run by a five-member commission, with the chairman and two members traditionally selected by the president and the other two members selected by the Senate minority leader — in this case Mr. McConnell.
Ms. Svinicki was first nominated by President George W. Bush, and her term expires at the end of June. Mr. McConnell asked in December 2010 that she receive another term, but the president — who officially makes all the nominations — has yet to act.
Mr. McConnell and his allies said the reason is Ms. Svinicki and three other commissioners — one Republican and two Democrats — went public late last year with charges that Mr. Jaczko regularly intimidates and bullies women at the NRC.
Mr. Jaczko, who in December promised to do better in talking with the other commissioners, used to work for Mr. Reid and for Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat.
Underlying the tension is an ideological split. The four commissioners are seen to be more accommodating to the nuclear energy industry's concerns, while Mr. Jaczko has pushed for new rules and restrictions on the industry.
Mr. Reid said he opposes Ms. Svinicki because she is not suited for the NRC.
"Senator Reid opposes Commissioner Svinicki's renomination because she lied to Congress about her past work on Yucca Mountain. Furthermore, Commissioner Svinicki has an abysmal record on nuclear safety, demonstrating that she puts the interests of the nuclear industry ahead of the safety of American citizens," said Adam Jentleson, the senator's spokesman.
"Sen. Reid has consistently supported qualified Republicans for the commission and is open to supporting others, but Commissioner Svinicki has disqualified herself and does not deserve to be renominated," Mr. Jentleson said.
The accusations of lying stem from Ms. Svinicki's testimony in 2007, when she said she did not work directly on Yucca Mountain in Nevada, the site the government had favored for storing nuclear waste until those plans had to be scrapped in the face of opposition led by Mr. Reid, the state's senior senator.
Democrats said internal emails and documents show Ms. Svinicki did, in fact, work on the Yucca Mountain project.
Mr. Reid's characterization of Ms. Svinicki is disputed by other Democrats, several of whom have publicly backed Ms. Svinicki. One Democratic senator, Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, has called her "a valued member of the commission," and another has circulated a letter of support for her renomination behind the scenes.
Naming the minority party's picks has been a long-standing courtesy, but it is not a rule. Indeed, Mr. Bush stressed that the Constitution gave him final say in all appointments, and Democrats said it's perfectly fair for Mr. Obama to adopt the same standard.
The White House took an aloof stance Wednesday.
"The administration agrees that we need a strong NRC, and that will continue to be a priority," spokesman Clark Stevens said. "Whenever a nomination is made, it should be considered expeditiously to make sure there is no break in June."
A spokesman for the NRC said appointments are the purview of the White House, and declined to comment further.
Michael McKenna, a Republican energy strategist who has been pushing Ms. Svinicki's nomination, said her case stands out because there is a Democratic nominee to a similar board, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, whose appointment also expires in June but who the White House moved quickly to resubmit.
"Why is this whistleblower being held back by Sen. Reid? It's retaliation, pure and simple," Mr. McKenna said. "He's the only person ever to raise any question about her."
Ms. Svinicki is on a trip to Africa that the Obama administration asked her to take, to talk about nuclear safety and uranium mining.
Mr. McKenna said he expects Republicans will insist on a vote for Ms. Svinicki, both to defend the independence of these kinds of commission selections and to fight back against what they say is an overbearing chairman.
"This is going to be the most important fight we have on the personnel front this year," Mr. McKenna said.
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