WASHINGTON -- The House yesterday voted overwhelmingly for the second time this year to kill the $11 billion Superconducting Super Collider, throwing the fate of the Texas energy research project and its related lease bond issue back up in the air.
In a highly unusual move, the House voted by 282 to 143 to send an energy appropriations bill back to a House-Senate conference committee with instructions to delete its $640 million of fiscal 1994 funds for the collider.
The conference committee, composed mostly of collider supporters on the House and Senate appropriations committees, last week had upheld the Senate's 57-to-42 position in favor of keeping the collider funds.
The collider's chief defender in the Senate Sen. Bennett Johnston, D-La., appeared to concede defeat yesterday in the face of the second overwhelming House vote.
"Today is a sad day for science. The demise of the SSC undoubtedly will mean the demise of other good science projects," he said. Johnston is the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee energy and water development subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over the collider, and the co-chairman of the House-Senate conference committee.
"The House was wrong, but they have a right to be wrong. Their message on deficit reduction and the SSC was clear and unmistakable. The conference must find ways to accommodate this message," Johnston said.
Since the beginning of the fiscal year on Oct. 1, the collider and other government energy programs have been running under a continuing appropriations measure that is due to expire tomorrow.
Linked indirectly to the federal funding are $250 million of lease revenue bonds that Texas issued for the project in December 1991. The state has pledged to continue appropriating payment on the bonds, but the issue's offering statement said the loss of federal funding would be a clear risk for investors.
Texas also has issued $250 million of general obligation bonds for the project that are not linked to the federal funding. Bond dealers say trading on the GO bonds has been largely unaffected by this year's rocky funding debate in Congress.
The House vote yesterday not only defied that chamber's tradition of passing conference bills largely uncontested, but also enlarged upon the record margin of opposition registered against the collider in the House's 280-to-150 vote last June.
Rep. Tom Bevill, D-Ala., the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee energy and water development subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over the collider, said the growing House chorus against the project will be the subject of discussion as House and Senate conferees meet again over the energy appropriations bill today.
"This is the third time the House has voted the collider down, and this time it was by 139 votes, up from 130 in June and 50 last year," Bevill said.
He said the conferees have several different ways to respond to the House vote, and he would not be "boxed into" saying how the impasse would be resolved.
"Our goal is to avoid gridlock" over the collider funding as well as over the larger energy bill, Bevill said, adding that "the whole nation has an interest in this."
Following the vote, collider opponents predicted that the conferees would try slashing the funding level in hopes of converting enough votes to enable the bill to pass in the House. They labeled that possibility the "worst possible result," however, since it would hobble the project without bringing the savings that would come from eliminating it.
Another option before the conference committee, and one favored by opponents, would be to report the collider funding as an item in disagreement between the House and Senate, said David Goldston, an aide to Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., an outspoken collider critic.
If the collider funding were attached to the energy spending measure as an item in disagreement, the House and Senate would keep voting on it separately until the matter was resolved with the concurrence of one or the other chamber, Goldston said.
Opponents believe the Senate would finally give way and accept the House position, he said. "Members are really geared up on this now, and they think time is on their side," he said.
Boehlert and Rep. Jim Slattery, D-Kan., who led the charge against the collider yesterday, are prepared to keep the energy bill in the air until Congress' expected adjournment just before Thanksgiving, if that is what it takes to kill the collider, Goldston said.
"The public will see this as a symbol of whether anything has changed" in Congress, he said, noting that many members pledged to cut spending when they voted for the $250 billion tax bill this summer.
One development that could sway votes among House Democrats would be President Clinton's taking a more public and vocal stand in favor of the project, Goldston said. The President included funding for the collider in his budget, but has not lobbied heavily for the bill.
Goldston said he "seriously doubts" Clinton would threaten to veto the bill if it excludes collider funding.
Just before yesterday's vote, House majority leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., gave a stirring speech in support of the collider, saying it will create the kind of high-tech jobs "we desperately need to create" in the next century.
"The only way we will compete is if we are ahead in technology. Yes, it is expensive, but the expenses is justified," Gephardt said.
But Boehlert called the project a "turkey" that has been draining funds away from worthwhile basic science projects. "It's good science, but it's simply not affordable science," he said.