WASHINGTON - A key Senate committee chairman yesterday pledged to fight for continued federal funding for the $8.25 billion Superconducting Super Collider as scientists told lawmakers that completion of the facility is essential to a more complete understanding of the universe.

Opening a joint hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Senate Appropriations energy and water development subcommittee, Sen. J. Bennett Johnson said the super collider project in Texas must be completed as part of the nation's effort to become more competitive internationally.

"Let us not kill this project in the name of a balanced budget," said Sen. Johnston, D-La., who is chairman of both the panels that met jointly yesterday. "The last things we should kill are basic science projects."

Sen. Johnston's appropriations subcommittee has not scheduled a date for a vote on super collider funding, but a congressional aide said the panel is unlikely to consider the matter until late this month.

If completed, the super collider will be a 54-mile circular tunnel in which proton beams will be sent in opposite directions, accelerated to close to the speed of light, and then smashed together. By studying what happens when the beams collide, scientists hope to better understand matter and the basic forces that govern the transformations of matter and energy.

The fate of the project was cast into doubt by the House of Representatives on June 17, when it voted to halt federal spending for the gigantic science experiment located just south of Dallas. The House has tried to slash funding for the project several times in recent years, but has been rebuffed each time by the Senate.

Many House members who voted to cut spending cited the nation's runaway deficit as their primary concern.

"We all want to send the message that we're fiscally responsible," Sen. Johnston said in an apparent reference to those concerns. But he said that cancellation of spending on the super collider and all other science projects would yield budgetary savings of just 1%.

According to Sen. Johnston, the main budgetary forces behind the government's ballooning deficit are entitlement programs, which he said make up at least 60% of the federal budget.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said the United States "cannot afford to say that we cannot afford this project." He said he supports funding for the project even though New Mexico could suffer financially. He explained that his state is home to two national research laboratories, and that money used to fund the super collider could not also be funneled to those labs.

"But this is important," he said of the super collider. "It would absolutely be a bum rap for America to say we cannot afford this."

Sen. Domenici also took aim at entitlement programs, saying that limiting growth in such programs as Medicaid to the level of inflation could yield $700 billion in savings over a 10-year period.

Assuming that federal funding for the project is restored by the Senate, the super collider's $8.249 billion price tag will be paid for by the federal government, the state of Texas, and interested foreign governments. However, though foreign governments had been solicited to shoulder several billions of dollars of the cost, interest has been scant.

Texas is financing its $1 billion stake in the project through the issuance of bonds. Of that amount, $500 million of debt already is outstanding. Super collider officials have said that $212 million of unspent bond proceeds will be held until Congress resolves the issue of federal funding, for use in case the bonds must be called.

While a number of senators yesterday spoke in favor of continuing federal funding for the project, Sen. Dale Bumpers D-Ark., said the super collider, while desirable, is not a priority program.

While lawmakers battled over the budgetary propriety of funding the project, scientists told senators that super collider research will yield immeasurable benefits.

Leon M. Lederman, director emeritus at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., said the project inevitably will give rise to inventions, which in turn will provide direct returns to the U.S. Treasury through new tax revenues. "But that's a crazy reason to build" the super collider, he said. "We should build it because we are thinking beings."

Though the outcome of the funding debate is uncertain, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Tex., toured the super collider site Monday and said there is a better than 50% chance the Senate will be successful in restoring super collider funds.

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