Philip Scott Andrews/The New York Times
In the last-minute rush in Congress to finalize spending for the current fiscal year and head home for the holidays, one of the losers appears to be USEC, the uranium enrichment company, and the politics are more convoluted than ever.
USEC grew out of the Manhattan Project initiative to develop nuclear weapons and was part of the Energy Department before it was privatized in 1998. It has been trying to develop a new technology to replace the 1940s-era system that it uses to enrich uranium for use in civilian nuclear reactors. It wanted a loan guarantee from the Energy Department, but the department felt that its demonstration plant in Piketon, Ohio, was not ready for prime time.
For one thing, some of its centrifuges were damaged in a power failure, revealing safety problems.
As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama had promised support for USEC; another backer is John Boehner, the House speaker, whose district in southern Ohio is about 100 miles away. Mr. Boehner has been pressing Mr. Obama to make good on his pledge even while complaining that the department should not be making risky loan guarantees, as it did in Solyndra’s case. The administration responded that it wanted to “reprogram” $300 million in the Energy Department’s budget that USEC could spend on further development work, but only if Congress gave its stamp of approval.
On Friday, when the House passed a spending bill that is meant to resolve most spending questions for the current fiscal year, it did not include authority for the Energy Department to transfer $150 million, the amount that USEC and the Energy Department had wanted for this year.
Paul Jacobson, a spokesman for USEC, said the company was “still working with the Department of Energy and the Ohio delegation to see if there’s any method to get that funding.’’
Energy Department officials believe that there is enough support in the Senate, and such a transfer already has the approval of the White House. That leaves the House.
“We’re disappointed that the House refused to back funding,’’ said Damien LaVera, an Energy Department spokesman. He called it “a blow to the future of our domestic nuclear industry as well as the people of southern Ohio.’’
Mr. Boehner issued a disclaimer of sorts. “I made a commitment when I was elected speaker that I would not use my position to direct committee chairmen to airdrop earmarks or earmark-like provisions into spending bills, and I am bound by that pledge,’’ he said in a statement issued on Friday evening. But President Obama should be bound by his pledge in the 2008 campaign, he said.
The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center promptly praised Mr. Boehner for taking a “principled stand.” The nonproliferation group, which seeks to halt the spread of nuclear weapons, generally opposes all things nuclear. But some Democrats grumbled that Mr. Boehner’s stance just seemed to be a way for Republicans to blame them for the fate of USEC, which is highly uncertain if it cannot make its new technology into a commercial project.
Mr. Boehner said there would still be a chance to restore the money when the House comes back in January. As a stand-alone bill, for example, such legislation would not qualify as an “earmark.”