WASHINGTON -- Eleven senators vowed yesterday to cut $200 million out of the Superconducting Super Collider's $640 million in close-out funds during a second round of congressional budget cuts slated for early next year.
The cut, if it succeeds, could jeopardize a possible move by the state of Texas to redeem $250 million of lease revenue bonds issued to fund part of the state's share of the project whose cost had soared to an estimated $11 billion.
The announcement by the mostly Democratic senators came as the Clinton Administration appeared to be in trouble in the House with a separate proposal to allow the refinancing in the private market of up to $4 billion of the Bonneville Power Administration's Treasury loans.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated earlier this week that the Bonneville privatization proposal would actually cost the government $166 million over five years, rather than save money as the Clinton Administration had estimated.
The CBO's determination led the House Natural Resources Committee to recommend against including the provision in a larger spending cut bill that is expected to go to the House floor for a vote before the House recesses next week.
But a Clinton official, claiming that the CBO relied on "bizarre budget scoring rules" in reaching its determination, said yesterday that the Office of Management and Budget would try to rescue the Bonneville provision, along with other bill provisions that are threatened by the CBO's estimates, by making some technical changes in the legislation.
The move to target the Super Collider's close-out funds for further cuts follows Congress' decision only last month to terminate the $11 billion nuclear physics research project.
Texas, where the project was under construction, has issued $250 million each of general obligation bonds and lease revenue bonds for the project. State officials indicated shortly after the termination decision that they were considering redeeming or refinancing the lease bonds.
But according to ratings agency officials, the state's ability to refund the bonds may depend somewhat on getting the generous allotment of $640 million of close-out funds that Congress provided the collider in its fiscal 1994 appropriations bill.
The move to cut the project further, led by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and, 10 other senators, reflects the widespread belief among the project's opponents that the close-out funding was padded unnecessarily.
"Many people believe that this, amount is far in excess of what is needed to shut down the project. In fact, former Secretary of Energy James Watkins estimated that termination would cost less than $300 million," the senators said in a letter to Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine.
The collider proposal is part of a $45 billion spending cut amendment that the senators said they will try to attach to the House spending cut bill when it reaches the Senate early next year. The House is expected to act first on the bill in the next several days. Most of the provisions of the Senate amendment target defense, energy, and space programs.
Kerry said the White House has been sympathetic to his proposal and is aware that Congress intends to increase the $11 billion of cuts the Administration has proposed in the House bill.
Sen. Harris Wofford, D-Pa., one of the amendment's sponsors, noted that the Senate proposal has an advantage over other spending cut proposals that have emerged in Congress because it does not undermine the President's health care reform bill by proposing deep cuts in the Medicare program to reduce the deficit. The Administration's health reform plan would use those cuts to help finance a universal health coverage system.
The largest obstacle looming before the amendment, the senators conceded, is Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who has threatened to use parliamentary maneuvers to fend off such drastic reductions when the House bill reaches the Senate.
But Sen. Kent Conrad, R-N.D., said that once the amendment comes up, it is likely to pass.
The House spending cut bill, originally drafted by the Administration to carry out part of its "Reinventing Government" initiative, still faces a tortuous path in the House, however.
The House Rules Committee twice in the last two days postponed a meeting aimed at preparing the bill for floor action because of delays caused by the dispute between the CBO and the Administration over the bill's savings estimates.
CBO deputy director James Blum testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee this week that the Bonneville debt proposal, in particular, was a "lose-lose situation" for taxpayers.
But deputy assistant energy secretary John Riggs argued that the budget accounting rules relied on by the CBO in reaching that determination were "bizarre" in not taking into account the gain from the payback of the debt.