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November 29, 2015

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President Obama nominates NRC commissioner opposed by Harry Reid

WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama will re-nominate Kristine Svinicki to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a White House official confirmed Thursday, bringing a swift end to a unfolding standoff with Senate Republicans demanding her term be extended past its scheduled end date of June 30.

That puts Sen. Harry Reid in an awkward position.

Reid fiercely opposes Svinicki’s renomination, “because she lied to Congress about her past work on Yucca Mountain” and “has an abysmal record on nuclear safety, demonstrating that she puts the interests of the nuclear industry ahead of the safety of American citizens,” Reid spokeswoman Kristen Orthman said Wednesday. “Commissioner Svinicki has disqualified herself and does not deserve to be re-nominated."

But now that Svinicki is being re-nominated, Reid, as Majority Leader and steward of the Senate calendar, is the only sure block to her eventual confirmation -- and between now and June 30, he’s going to have to decide if he’s going to wield that power.

Svincki is one of five sitting members of the NRC, who serve staggered five years terms. She is one of two Republican commissioners (the other, William C. Ostendorff, was re-confirmed last year), and came to the position after spending years working on nuclear policy at the Department of Energy and for Republican Senators Larry Craig, John Warner, and John McCain.

Reid faults Svinicki for telling the Environment and Public Works committee at her initial confirmation hearing in 2007 that she never worked on Yucca Mountain, when documents she authored show she very much did, even penning items that formed the basis for the government’s eventually siting Yucca as the country’s only nuclear waste dump site. Reid has serious problems with Svinicki’s past positions on safety regulations as well.

But his opposition goes further: Svinicki is also one of the commissioners who publicly crossed NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko last year, setting off a political scandal that led many Republicans to call for Jaczko’s ouster.

Jaczko is a former Reid employee, whose leadership Reid has defended while pointing a finger at the other commissioners, accusing them of being in the back pocket of the nuclear industry, and maintaining that they ought to go so Jaczko can clean up the NRC.

The NRC survived that episode intact, and commissioners’ internal tensions have not been making headlines since late last year. But Senate Republican leaders recalled the episode vividly on Wednesday when they began pressing the Obama administration to re-send Svinicki’s name to the Senate for another NRC term, warning that if the White House refused, “we will be forced to conclude...that she’s being held up in retaliation for speaking up against a rogue chairman who bullies his subordinates,” Sen. Mitch McConnell said Wednesday.

Though cagey at first about their plans, White House officials announced plans to re-nominate Svinicki barely 24 hours after McConnell’s complaint.

That puts Reid in a tight spot. On Wednesday, Reid was firmly in a position of defiance: According to senior Senate officials, he didn’t plan to confirm Svinicki even if the White House did nominate her.

On Thursday, he didn’t sound so sure.

“I can’t send things up or not send them up,” Reid said, launching into a list of people who also had issues with Svinicki. “Senator Heller has spoken out, Congresswoman Berkley has spoken out against her, and Chairman Boxer has spoken out against her...that’s why we have the Congress and hearings held and we’ll approach that when we have to.”

Nevada Sen. Dean Heller’s spokesman said Wednesday that Heller would not support any nominee that was not opposed to Yucca Mountain. Svinicki is not opposed to Yucca.

Nevada Rep. Shelley Berkley, who will not have an opportunity to vote on Svinicki’s nomination (only the Senate votes to confirm nominees), delivered a harsh screed against Svinicki on the House floor Wednesday, calling her a “Yucca nuclear waste-pusher” and urging Senators to ensure that she “does not have another term.”

California Sen. Barbara Boxer chairs the Environment and Public Works committee, which has the responsibility of grilling Svinicki, and voting on her nomination, before she can be sent to the Senate for a confirmation vote.

That was the committee Svinicki appeared before in 2007, when she misled lawmakers as to her work on Yucca Mountain -- an episode that has soured her against the nominee. But Boxer isn’t the whole vote, and at least one Democrat on the committee -- Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware -- has already says he believes Svinicki deserves a second term.

If that happens, it won’t be the first time Senate leaders will be potentially stalemated over a presidential nominee (though usually, it is the Republican leader opposing Obama’s picks, not Reid). But how the standoff breaks will likely come down to Reid: Block Svinicki’s nomination and invite a renewed political crisis over the NRC, or put it up for a vote and risk having her be confirmed.

A renewed political crisis over the NRC could further complicate Jaczko’s leadership -- a consideration for his supporters, as he is next in line for a re-nomination when his term ends in 2013.

But this week at least, Reid appeared ready to make that trade to keep Svinicki away.

“I’m not saying that it won’t make [Jaczko’s] life harder,” said one senior Senate staffer familiar with the situation said Wednesday. “But it’s not a reason to let [Svinicki] sail thru and be reconfirmed.”

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