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September 3, 2015

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The Policy Racket

Heller and Kirk in an amendment-off over Yucca mountain

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Dean Heller

Republican Sens. Dean Heller and Mark Kirk have got themselves into a bona fide amendment-off over Yucca mountain, but their squabble may be destined to stay on the sidelines of the Senate floor.

It all started earlier this month, when Kirk, from Illinois, announced he’d be sponsoring an amendment to the Energy and Water appropriations bill to prevent any federal funds from being used to shut down the Yucca project — which would effectively keep the development and siting of the nuclear waste repository open and humming along.

It’s not that Kirk intends to succeed, not right now at least. For him, this is about planning for the future.

“As soon as Reid is out of office, we’ll win,” Kirk told the Sun last week, envisioning a Republican takeover of the Senate that would put Nevada Sen. Harry Reid out of his influential majority leadership “about 14 months from now.”

But for Heller, Kirk’s planned stunt could also have future consequences.

Heller and Kirk conversed in the last week about the latter’s Yucca amendment, but it appears the junior-most Senator on Capitol Hill wasn’t able to dissuade Kirk from his cause.

So on Tuesday, as the Energy and Water bill became the present business on the Senate agenda, Heller offered a counter-amendment: one to guarantee no new funds are made available to go toward the Yucca project.

There’s only two issues with that. First: there’s no guarantee that his bill will get floor time. Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell told the Sun Tuesday afternoon he hadn’t yet made any decisions about whether or not he would promote the Yucca amendments — Reid is allowing an open amendment process, but has asked McConnell that they voluntarily limit the amendments presented to a total of ten.

Second issue: Kirk’s amendment is highly, highly unlikely to get the 60 votes it would need to clear a filibuster, and absent that, there’s no problem: the underlying bill doesn’t actually have any Yucca funding in it.

For Heller, it’s insurance.

“This amendment adds an extra layer of protection from any Congressional efforts to re-open what I already consider a closed issue,” he said in the statement announcing his amendment. “I will continue to work with other members of the Nevada delegation to make sure that Yucca mountain is not used as a nuclear waste dump.”

But Heller’s amendment may be political insurance as well: not to block against his main opponent in the Republican Senate Caucus, but to block against his main opponent on the 2012 Senate campaign trail, vocal anti-Yucca Rep. Shelley Berkley.

“A lot of this is that Heller’s just trying to innoculate himself in the Senate run, given what Amodei is saying [about Yucca] — I don’t think he wants to be lumped in with some of the other Republicans in the delegation, given his lack of name recognition down here,” said David Damore, a professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “It’s largely a defense measure.”

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