WASHINGTON -- Sen. Dale Bumpers will propose killing funds for the $8.25 billion Superconducting Super Collider contained in a bill scheduled to go to the Senate floor within days, kicking off what observers say could be a close contest over the project's fate.
Hanging in the balance in Congress' increasingly heated battle over the giant atom-smasher are $250 million of lease revenue bonds issued by Texas last year to help finance its $1 billion share of the project.
If Congress decides to pull the plug, the state would be left "holding the bag" and be forced to return the unused portion of the bond proceeds, estimated at $212 million, said Roy F. Schwitters, the leading energy research scientist who heads up the project. Mr. Schwitters was in town yesterday lobbying for continued funding.
In a surprise move, the House voted on June 17 to scuttle most of a planned $484 million appropriation for the huge project in fiscal 1993. Members voting against the project cited worries about the escalating federal deficit, as well as skepticism about an often-promised $1.7 billion of international contributions, which for the most part have not materialized.
But the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to restore the project's 1993 funding earlier this month, putting $550 million in an appropriations bill for energy and water programs.
Sen. Bumpers, the self-described "primary Senate opponent" of the collider, who has waged skirmishes against it each year, said he will propose to strip that funding entirely from the bill when it reaches the Senate floor as early as today.
The Arkansas Democrat cited many of the same concerns as House members who voted against it. "Every single voter that I talk to is adamant that we have to cut federal spending to get this red ink under control. While the Superconducting Super Collider may be meritorious, it is a luxury that we just cannot afford," he said in announcing that he would debate collider sponsors over the merits of the project before the National Press Club today.
Sen. Bumpers added that the project's cost, originally estimated at $5.3 billion, has "grown out of control" and could approach $20 billion over the life of the project. Sponsors deny that the costs would increase that much.
Sen. Bumpers said his campaign to kill the project is supported by Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, and Republican Whip Alan Simpson, R-Wy., among others.
Melissa Skolfield, the senator's press secretary, said his effort to kill the project should gather momentum from the House vote. "We're not predicting victory," she said, but added that last year, before the House vote, the senator's amendment fell just 14 votes short of a majority, with 37 votes.
Even supporters indicated the battle could be close this year, as members of Congress appear to be upping the ante in growing election-year bids to demonstrate concern about the deficit.
President Bush, who has frequently exerted his influence to keep the project alive in the face of congressional opposition, announced that he would visit the collider's construction site today in Waxahachie, Tex., to speak to workers building the project's 54-mile-long underground tunnel.
To counter criticism of the project, President Bush and other project sponsors have trumpeted its value in stimulating the economy and creating jobs for construction workers and researchers, as well as its potential to produce breakthroughs in high-energy physics.
Mr. Schwitters predicted that collider proponents could win the fight on the Senate floor. He pointed to continuing strong support for the project from the congressional appropriations committees and key members such as Senate Finance Committee Chairman Lloyd Bentsen, D-Tex., and Sen. Phil Gramm, D-Tex.
But after that, he said, there might be an effort to gut the project's funding in the House-Senate conference committee that will meet after the Senate vote to resolve differences between the House and Senate bills.