- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 12, 2010

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s re-election hinges in part on his efforts to stop the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository from being built. But a fellow Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray, could hurt her re-election chances if she can’t show that she’s trying hard enough to get the project restarted.

Although the midterm elections are shaping up nationally to be a referendum on the economy, jobs and President Obama’s record, local concerns in races across the country could end up swaying those contests and, ultimately, control of the Senate.

In Indiana, Republican Dan Coats is trying to make terrorism an issue in the Senate race by accusing his Democratic opponent, Rep. Brad Ellsworth, of voting to close the prison at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In North Carolina, Sen. Richard M. Burr’s voting record on energy policy has been raised. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, meanwhile, is trying to rescue her re-election bid in Arkansas by pushing for more than $1 billion for farmers.

But no other issue is as complicated as Yucca Mountain, which pits Mrs. Murray of Washington, the No. 4 Democrat in the Senate, against the rest of her party’s members. They include Mr. Reid, who, like most other Nevada politicians, is a fierce opponent of the Yucca repository.

Mr. Reid argues in a television ad that his opponent, Republican Sharron Angle, disagrees with most other Nevadans.

“Each year, 5 million pounds of radioactive nuclear waste are disposed of in the U.S. Sharron Angle wants to bring all 5 million pounds here for reprocessing in Nevada,” the ad announcer intones.

Mrs. Angle has said that she is open to having Nevada accept nuclear waste, but her campaign also points to a bill she sponsored in the state Assembly urging the federal government to forgo Yucca Mountain as a waste site.

“She is a legislator who listens to the voters,” said spokesman Jerry Stacy. “By contrast, Sen. Harry Reid has not listened to the people of Nevada, whether you’re talking about Obamacare, cap and trade, or trillions in deficits.”

The issue plays differently 1,000 miles away. Mrs. Murray and her Republican opponent, Dino Rossi, are pushing to get the Yucca site up and running so it can take waste from the Hanford Site, a partially decommissioned nuclear plant on the Columbia River in central Washington.

Hanford has been called the nation’s most toxic radioactive site, but it wasn’t until this year that the issue became a political liability for Mrs. Murray. Mr. Rossi began to argue that the incumbent senator hadn’t done enough to promote the Yucca alternative.

Mrs. Murray faced pointed questions Friday from the Seattle Times about why she voted to confirm Nuclear Regulatory Commission members who oppose the Yucca project, and she said she didn’t have any opportunity to cast a specific vote.

“It wasn’t a vote up or down; they went through like many nominations do,” she said.

She said she has voted “consistently” in favor of pursuing Yucca Mountain, “despite my own party leadership and despite the current president.”

Just before senators adjourned for their summer recess, Mrs. Murray introduced an amendment in committee to a spending bill that would have restarted funding for the Yucca repository.

Her fellow Democrats defeated her amendment, leaving Mr. Rossi to argue she’s too beholden to her own party and Mr. Reid to look out for her state’s interests. He said that explains why she didn’t object to allowing the confirmations of the three Nuclear Regulatory Commission members.

“She votes with her leadership, she is in leadership,” Mr. Rossi said.

When the Senate reconvenes this month, Mrs. Murray might get a chance to offer an amendment on the chamber floor to kick-start Yucca.

Mr. Coats also is localizing a national issue, saying Mr. Ellsworth has cast votes that would allow the Obama administration to close Guantanamo Bay and bring terrorist suspects to the U.S.

Mr. Ellsworth’s campaign didn’t return a call seeking comment, but he has called Mr. Coats’ television ad “flat-out wrong” because Congress would have to approve the transfer of detainees.

Republicans also are taking heat for national issues. In the Ohio race for a U.S. Senate seat, Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher is attacking Republican Rob Portman, a former congressman and top-ranking George W. Bush administration official, for having approved “bad trade deals” when he was the chief trade negotiator for the U.S.

In North Carolina, interest groups have run ads saying Mr. Burr has “let big oil off the hook” with some of his votes on energy policy. The ads try to make a connection between those votes and the BP PLC oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

In Arkansas, the dash for federal dollars that dominates much of Congress’ deliberations is getting a major airing.

Mrs. Lincoln, a Democrat who heads the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, is fighting on Capitol Hill to win $1.5 billion in farm aid, much of which would go to Arkansas farmers who lost crops because of flooding last year.

“These are farmers that have seen disaster; they’re hurting,” she said Friday in her first campaign debate with her Republican challenger, Rep. John Boozman, adding that agriculture accounts for more than 200,000 jobs and $9 billion in Arkansas’ economy.

Democratic leaders have asked Mrs. Lincoln not to try to attach the money to a bill intended to promote lending for small businesses. They say Mrs. Lincoln’s amendment would give Republicans a reason to oppose the legislation.

The White House has said it will try to find the money another way, although Democratic lawmakers question the administration’s right to redirect money from existing accounts.

Mr. Boozman accused Mrs. Lincoln of looking more for a political bailout than a farmer bailout.

“It’s unanimous. The president does not have the authority to bail her out in this way,” he said.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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