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Politicians scramble for LANL credit

WASHINGTON — An announcement last week that the Department of Energy wants to shift $19 million to a nuclear waste management account at Los Alamos National Laboratory set off a scramble for political credit here.

Rep. Steve Pearce, the New Mexico congressional delegation’s lone Republican, was irked when he learned that Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, along with Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., sent a letter to House and Senate appropriators asking them to support the DOE request. That’s because Pearce wanted to sign the letter as well, reasoning that the waste in question will end up at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad — in his district.

Pearce had made his interest known to the delegation Democrats’ offices, but they sent the letter without him.

That’s not entirely unusual — LANL is not in Pearce’s district; it’s in Luján’s. But the New Mexico delegation has traditionally — if not always — shown bipartisan solidarity on matters of federal funding for the state.

Pearce is the only Republican member of Congress from New Mexico, so if the money matter had been at all controversial, it would have made sense to have his name on a letter going to the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee.

In the end, it didn’t matter. The House and Senate spending panels approved the DOE request Wednesday, and Los Alamos will get its extra $19 million for nuclear waste management.

Meanwhile on Wednesday, almost at the same time that Udall, Heinrich and Luján sent a joint news release trumpeting committee votes approving the cleanup money, Pearce’s office made public a letter he had written to House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., seeking the money. Pearce followed up with a news release.

“I am pleased with this decision, which is the only common sense move for New Mexico’s safety and our jobs,” Pearce said in the release.

The Obama administration requested $239 million for the cleanup in the fiscal year 2013 budget. But a continuing budget resolution approved by Congress froze the funding at $189 million, and sequestration cuts further reduced the allocation to $173 million.

The New Mexico delegation is now seeking another $21 million — in addition to the $19 million approved Wednesday — for the LANL cleanup from the National Nuclear Security Administration’s budget. Udall pressed acting DOE Director Daniel Poneman about it during an Appropriations subcommittee hearing Wednesday.

Poneman suggested the chances are good the DOE will back the request.

“We are very interested in proceeding down that track,” Poneman said.

While the congressional delegation was taking credit for securing the $19 million, a grass-roots organization called the Regional Coalition of LANL communities, led by Santa Fe Mayor David Coss, chimed in and patted New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez on the back, as well.

“The work of the congressional delegation in partnership with the office of the governor and the support of local elected officials through the Regional Coalition is an example of how strong partnerships can really make an impact in Washington,” Coss said in the statement.

That’s true, but what is lost in the self-congratulatory pronouncements is that the DOE is obligated to take care of LANL’s waste problem. The DOE created it, after all.

Still, in an era of sequesters and severely pinched budgets, this is, indeed, good news for New Mexico.