To most of the Senate the issue is clear: Nuclear waste is piling up at power plants around the country, and the federal government has a legal obligation to store it somewhere safe. That somewhere, according to a bill now before the Senate, is Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
To the state's two senators, Democrats Harry Reid and Richard Bryan, something more basic is at stake: Nevada. And along with the state's two members of the House of Representatives, both Republicans, they are sparing no effort to block the measure.
The two took to the Senate floor this week in tag-team action against the bill. "This has been for me and the Nevada delegation one of the overriding issues of the past decade," Senator Bryan says in an interview. "This is Nevada's fight. For us, this is do or die."
The issue illustrates the special role senators play in developing legislation. Members of the House of Representatives represent areas within states, sometimes just part of a big city. But senators represent entire states. The founders' idea was to keep large states from running roughshod over small ones. The Senate is part of the price they paid to get small states to ratify the Constitution.
The Senate is meant to be deliberative - its rules often make for tedious discussion of issues. It functions by "unanimous consent" agreements that limit debate and divide discussion time between proponents and opponents of a measure. By objecting to a consent request, a single senator can put a "hold" on a bill or a nomination and force the leadership to resort to a more cumbersome procedure. It takes 60 senators to cut off debate, meaning it effectively takes three-fifths of the Senate to enact any law.
Two determined senators like Reid, a low-key Mormon father of five who once served as a Capitol policeman, and Bryan, an Episcopalian father of three who is a former governor, can make it tough to pass a bill they don't like. And they don't like this one.
Back in 1982, Congress decided Yucca Mountain should be the permanent storage location for the nation's nuclear waste. Most Nevadans weren't crazy about that, but they really got angry when lawmakers proposed storing waste there "temporarily," even before scientists decided that the site is safe - or that it will remain so for the next 10,000 years, the amount of time the waste will be radioactive.
Proponents, such as Sen. Frank Murkowski (R) of Alaska, point out the federal government is legally liable for storing the waste, which it is supposed to begin accepting in 1998. Meanwhile, he notes, waste is accumulating at 80 sites in 41 states. "No matter what state we're talking about, there would be an objection. But we have a responsibility," he says.
"Something needs to be done - and not 15 years from now," says Senate majority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi.
The Nevadans believe the site will simply become permanent without further study or discussion. Anyone who believes otherwise is "temporarily insane," Mr. Reid says.
Bryan and Reid have fought the bill several times before. A similar measure passed the Senate last year 64 to 37, but was never taken up by the House. Stopping the storage of waste in Nevada is the reason Bryan came to Washington. "I was governor and left in midterm because of this issue. I had always wanted to be governor and thoroughly enjoyed it," he says. But frustration with what he saw as his predecessor's weak defense of the state drove him to run in '88. "I felt Nevada needed a stronger voice."
On the Senate floor, the two men carry ring binders full of arguments to lob against the bill's supporters: Scientists say no safety reasons demand storage in a central location. The bill brushes aside environmental and safety legislation. The waste would be shipped from all over the country, endangering millions of people.
Standing before a chart showing radiation safety standards at other locations, standards far higher than those mandated for Yucca Mountain, Bryan waves a copy of the bill. "Shouldn't we all be concerned about the health and safety of all Americans?" he asks.
A long history of Nevada experience with nuclear issues lies behind the senators' stonewalling. After years of nuclear-weapons testing in the state, some residents now receive federal compensation for illnesses believed related to radiation. But other states don't want the waste either. Storing it in Nevada gets them off the hook, however much they sympathize with the state's ire over its designation as America's nuclear dump.
By midweek, it was clear the Senate leadership had the 60 votes needed to end debate, and the Nevadans agreed to let it proceed. But they aren't giving up. For one thing, they don't believe the House will take the bill up after it passes the Senate. (A vote could come any time this week or next.) If it does, Nevada's two GOP representatives will carry on the fight. For another, the Nevadans have a powerful trump card to play: President Clinton has threatened to veto the bill.
"Our strategy is to get a sufficient number of votes to sustain a presidential veto," Bryan says. "The magic number is 34 votes." The senators have spent the last several months talking to colleagues, trying to hold the line.
"This is why each state has two senators," Bryan says. "We intend to work the system to the advantage of states like Nevada who are being imposed on by others."