WASHINGTON - The stage was set for a fight between House and Senate negotiators over funding for the $8.25 billion Superconducting Super Collider after the Senate voted Monday night to reverse a House vote to virtually eliminate funding for the project.
The Senate's 62-to-32 vote to keep the giant atom smasher alive with a $550 million appropriation in fiscal 1993 gave new hope to workers at its construction site just south of Dallas, as well as to holders of $250 million of lease revenue bonds Texas issued for the collider last year.
After the House voted in June to kill all but $34 million of funding to close out the project, many had thought for the first time that Congress might pull the plug and force an early redemption of the bonds.
"We're feeling a lot better," said Edward C. Bingler, executive director of the Texas National Research Laboratory Commission, the state agency providing lease payments on the bonds. He echoed the appraisal of Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas, who said after the Senate vote that the collider had been taken "off the endangered species list."
But the project still faces a rocky road in Congress as House and Senate conferees prepare to wrangle over 1993 funding. Opponents, still cheered by their victory in the House, are regrouping to take another shot at the collider next year.
"It's going to be a knock 'em down, drag 'em out fight in conference," said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., a prominent collider opponent on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.
Rep. Boehlert said he will offer a motion in the House this week to instruct House conferees to stand firmly behind eliminating funding.
Negotiations over the appropriations bill could begin as early as next week. But David Gwaltney, a Senate Appropriations Committee aide, said the prospect of a fight over the collider may force the conferees to delay meeting until Congress returns from its Labor Day recess.
Despite continuing strong opposition to the collider in the House, an aide to Rep. Boehlert conceded that the House Appropriations Committee members who will preside at the conference generally support the collider and are likely to agree to continue funding the project next year.
He predicted that the House would insist merely on reducing the Senate-approved funding level from $550 million to $484 million, the level approved by the House Appropriations Committee this year before the funding was killed in action by the full House.
Mr. Bingler agreed that $484 million was a likely compromise, and added that "the project is doable at that level." Aaron Edmundson, a House Appropriations Committee aide, acknowledged that such a compromise is being considered, but added that "anything is possible."
Mr. Gwaltney said the Senate conferees would resist reducing funding to $484 million because that would cause "significant delays and higher costs," and play right into the hands of opponents, who often cite the project's cost overruns. He pointed out that the Senate committee already cut funding by $100 million from the $650 million million level recommended by President Bush.
The difficulty of reaching a compromise was underscored by the divergent votes in the two houses over the collider. The Senate on Monday by a two-to-one margin defeated two amendments to kill the collider that were identical to amendments that had passed easily in the House.
Both amendments were offered by Sen. Dale Bumpers, D-Ark. The first would have eliminated all funding for the project next year except $34 million, and the second called for ending the project by June 1, 1993, if $650 million of promised foreign contributions do not materialize by then.
Mr. Bingler said the obvious schism in Congress over funding has not yet hurt investor interest in the lease revenue bonds. "There are many safeguards built into those bond issues and investors know that," he said.
But he said it is unclear whether the congressional funding war will affect the ability of the commission to sell debt to fund the rest of the state's $1 billion commitment to the project.
Voters authorized up to $500 million of general obligation bonds for the project, half of which have been issued and are rated double-A. They have also authorized another $250 million of lease revenue bonds secured by annual appropriations of the Texas Legislature. Those bonds have been rated A-minus.