WASHINGTON - Opponents of the $8.25 billion Superconducting Super Collider vowed yesterday to carry on their fight against the giant atom smasher next year, despite an agreement by House and Senate negotiators to continue funding in 1993.
The project's foes said the collider may have received only a reprieve as a result of the decision by House and Senate appropriations conferees Tuesday to provide $517 million in fiscal 1993, which begins Oct. 1. That decision, mirroring the Senate's approval of funding for the project, overruled a House vote in June to kill the project.
"The collider will limp on for another year," but it will face an even stiffer test in the House next year, said Daniel Pearson, legislative aide to Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., one of the principal opponents in the House.
Sen. Dale Bumpers, D-Ark., the project's chief critic in the Senate, also insisted that the collider eventually will die, "if not this year, then next year or the year after that" as Congress gropes for ways to reduce the bloated federal deficit.
But Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Tex., one of the powerful senators who fought to save the project this year, said the conferees' approval of funding close to the $550 million level voted by the Senate was a good omen.
"To go in a few short months from a situation where SSC survival was in doubt and then wind up with an increase over last year's funding is a remarkable turnaround," he said. But he added that it was a close call.
"Having gone through the SSC funding battle, I have a far better appreciation for Winston Churchill's observation that nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at and missed," Sen. Bentsen said.
Aaron Edmundson, a House Appropriations Committee aide, said that while the conferees' decision was "final" for this year only, "it would be foolish to assume that we would appropriate $500 million with the intention of killing it next year. "
The decision to continue funding, at least for now, takes some pressure off $250 million of lease revenue bonds that the state Texas issued in December to help fund its share of the project.
Payment on those bonds is indirectly linked to the federal funding, and project managers had said that unused bond proceeds totaling about $212 million would have to be returned if the funding fell through.
The state also has issued $250 million of general obligation bonds for the project, which is being built south of Dallas in Waxahachie. The Texas Bond Review Board is expected to approve a plan today to refund those bonds, possibly by yearend, to generate debt service savings, state sources said.
But while business continued as usual in Texas, politicians in Washington were debating the project's future.
"We have been saying for a long time that if the Senate funded it this year, it would get another year," Mr. Pearson, the aide to Rep. Boehlert, said. "But I don't think it's going to survive next year. "
"Some of the support that it got this year was from the perceived need by [President Bush and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton] to win Texas," he said. "I'm not sure whoever has control of the executive branch next year will pull out all the stops" to save it, as Mr. Bush has as part of his re-election bid, he said.
"We will have 100 or 150 new faces in the House next year, none of whom has a record of voting for this thing, and all of whom will have gotten here by promising to stop excessive federal funding," Mr. Pearson said. "I expect we will win overwhelmingly by 70 or 80 votes when or if [a large turnover] happens, and that will make it impossible to keep the collider alive."
Besides reversing the House's vote on the collider, the conferees also squelched an amendment in the House version of the appropriations bill that was designed to cut off funding next year even if funding was renewed this year.
That amendment, which also showed the House's resolve to end the project, called on the administration to stop funding on June 1, 1993, unless it were to receive $650 million of promised funding commitments from foreign governments.
The Senate rejected an identical amendment offered by Sen. Bumpers. Sen. Bennett Johnston, D-La., and other strong supporters in the chamber charged it would give potential foreign contributors like the Japanese the power to veto the project by pulling the plug on funding next year.
"We're not ruling out foreign participation," said David Gwaltney, an aide to Sen. Johnston on the Senate Appropriations Committee. "What we're saying is, if it's worth doing, we ought to do it ourselves."
In light of the perennial funding battle and resulting delays in the project's construction, the earliest any new-money bonds are likely to be issued for the project would be the end of 1993, said Robert Carpenter, director of fiscal affairs at the Texas National Laboratory Research Commission, the state agency overseeing the project.
Revisions of the project's spending plans caused by reduced federal spending may determine whether lease revenue or state-backed general obligation bonds are issued then, he added. For example, if plans for construction of office buildings are delayed, lease revenue bonds would not be sold next, as originally planned, he said.