WASHINGTON - A Senate Appropriations subcommittee yesterday approved $640 million for the Superconducting Super Collider amid predictions by the $11 billion project's chief defender that the full Senate next week will vote to save it.
"I've gone from hopeful to optimistic," said Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, D-La., the chairman of the Appropriations Committee's energy and water subcommittee, which approved by voice vote the funding for the fiscal year that begin Oct. 1.
"I've talked to virtually every senator, and that's why I'm hopeful," he said. "To stop a project like this is a shame for America, and I don't believe Congress will do it."
Despite Johnston's confidence, informal polls of the Senate recently conducted by newspapers in the Dallas area, where the atomic energy project is located, have indicated that the outcome of the vote is too close to call. In June, the House voted by its largest margin ever, 280 to 150, to close out project funding.
At stake are $250 million each of lease revenue bonds and general obligation bonds issued by Texas in 1991 as part of the state's $1 billion contribution to the project.
The lease bonds are backed by a state pledge to appropriate lease payments for collider facilities each year. State officials have said they intend to honor that pledge regardless of what Congress does.
But bond documents list the loss of federal funding as a clear risk for the lease bondholders because the project can not be completed with state funding alone. The federal Department of Energy has already spent $2 billion on the collider. Recent cost estimates say it will take another $8 billion of federal funds to complete it.
Johnston also said he believes he has quashed a threatened amendment by Sen. Dennis Deconcini, D-Ariz., to kill the collider funding when the bill goes to the full Senate Appropriations Committee for a vote on Thursday.
"We have the votes in committee, and people don't usually bring up an amendment when you have the votes to defeat it," he said. Deconcini and another prominent opponent of the collider on the committee, Senate Budget Committee Chairman James Sasser, D-Tenn., did not attend the markup yesterday.
Two other outspoken opponents - Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Robert Kerrey, D-Neb. - jokingly asked to be excused from the meeting when Johnston started to speak in favor of the collider.
Johnston, citing strong support from the Clinton administration and the scientific community, also appeared confident that the collider funding will survive in conference with the House next week, should the Senate vote to approve the funding.
House opponents of the project, led by Rep. James Slattery, D-Kan., have obtained the signatures of more than 115 members who are pledged to vote against the conference bill if it contains funding for the collider.
House Speaker Thomas Foley, D-Wash., also said for the first time this week that he will appoint members to the conference committee who will stand fast for the House position. Last year, after the House voted to kill the project by a narrower margin than this year, the leadership appointed conference members who favored the project. As a result, the conference committee last year restored the collider funding.
Johnston suggested that the outcome in the conference committee would be the same this year. He said that he regrets that many House members have pledged to defeat the conference bill if it contains collider funding, but "a hundred votes is not enough" to do so in the 435-member House.
The turbulence the collider is going through this year stems largely from this summer's contentious budget debate, which centered on the large, $250 billion of tax increases contained in President Bill Clinton's deficit reduction plan.
Members of Congress repeatedly pledged to seek more spending cuts this fall to justify the tax increases. and often mentioned the collider as a prime candidate for cuts.
On Monday, two influential ex-senators joined the growing list of legislators and interest groups arrayed against the collider.
Warren Rudman, formerly a Republican senator from New Hampshire, and Paul Tsongas, former Democrat from Massachusetts, said that their anti-deficit group, the Concord Coalition, is recommending elimination of the collider as one of about $250 billion of spending cuts Congress should enact to erase the deficit.