Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011 | 2 a.m.
Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois dropped on Wednesday his amendment to block any funds from being used to shutter the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository — an order that would have effectively led to its redevelopment.
Cue the scramble by the Nevada delegation for who gets to take credit — which got so frenzied that even Kirk decided, of his own rather curious volition, to weigh in.
“Sen. (Harry) Reid has been working behind the scenes lining up opposition to this amendment on both sides of the aisle. That’s the reason why this was dropped,” said a Democratic aide who called within minutes of Kirk’s decision being made public. “It became abundantly clear that this amendment was doomed to fail.”
Predicting that Sen. Dean Heller — who offered a counter-amendment to Kirk’s after he was unable to dissuade the Illinois Republican to drop his cause — would try to claim some credit, the aide went on: “(Heller) was just sitting on his hands. The reason this amendment is off the floor is Harry Reid.”
Later Wednesday afternoon, Heller was measured when describing what happened from his perspective.
“Sen. Kirk and I had numerous conversations, but it was obvious that we disagreed on the direction where that was going,” he said. “I think he realized that he didn’t have whatever it took, he didn’t have the votes, whatever was necessary for his amendment to move forward. And I think we were part of that decision-making, but I don’t know to what extent.”
But Heller bristled when asked if his lack of seniority had prevented him from killing Kirk’s proposal outright.
“I see no reason why I can’t push as hard as anyone else to make things happen in the United States Senate,” Heller said.
He said, he said. It’s typical for the U.S. Senate, even when you are working toward the same goal.
Then things took an odd turn. Late in the day, I got a surprise phone call from the only man who could settle the argument: Sen. Mark Kirk himself.
I hadn’t asked to speak with Kirk. Confused by the call — senators don’t usually surprise regional reporters with unsolicited phone calls, especially when it’s a reporter far outside their region (it wasn’t my birthday either) — I asked him to explain what had led to his decision to drop his Yucca Mountain amendment.
After noting that he still intended to submit a letter to the conferees who will meet to reconcile the House and Senate Energy and Water bills, Kirk bluntly offered: “It was not just Reid; it was Sen. Dean Heller who was doing a very good job on the other side.”
“I called Dean to say ‘congratulations on this round, and see you next year,’ ” Kirk added.
A spokesman for Heller did not immediately return a call asking whether his office had put Kirk up to this gift interview; a spokesman for Reid said his office certainly had not.
But someone did.
“It does show you that the Republicans are aware that they need to help Dean Heller,” said UNR political science professor Eric Herzik. “I don’t think that was an accidental phone call. It clearly is designed to help Dean Heller, and at one level, that’s what the party needs to do.”
It’s not altruism on Kirk’s part: Nevada’s 2012 race between Heller and Rep. Shelley Berkley is shaping up to be one of the closest in the country (both candidates, incidentally, are vehemently against building a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain). If control of the Senate is anywhere near as close, Kirk will need Heller’s win to give Republicans a majority in the U.S. Senate — which is key to Kirk’s greater plans for Yucca Mountain. As he told the Sun last week, Kirk’s plans for Yucca Mountain hinge on ending Reid’s tenure as Senate majority leader.
“As soon as Reid is out of office, we’ll win,” Kirk told the Sun last week of his fight to open Yucca Mountain.
Even if he’s working to help the anti-Yucca Mountain Heller right now, he’s still full-steam ahead on his long-term plan.
“Next year ... I’ll be trying to develop a proposal that benefits the state economy of Nevada,” Kirk told the Sun in Wednesday evening’s phone call, “to see if we can come up with a win-win situation.”
That could help with “the unemployment situation in Las Vegas,” Kirk said, or a straight-up large cash buy-off to persuade — or some might say bribe — Nevadans to go along with accepting the nation’s nuclear waste.
“At this point I am for anything that rapidly provides a permanent solution to protect the ecosystem first of the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River and other critical population centers, such as the Long Island Sound and the Diablo Canyon,” Kirk continued. “I think we should look to Nevada first because all the site preparation and study to see what kind of benefit should come to the state and to its economy.”