RENO, Nev. - Republican Senate hopeful John Ensign found himself on the defensive again Tuesday as GOP leaders in Congress staged a high-profile call for President Clinton to sign a bill sending nuclear waste to Nevada.
''Sign this bill because it makes plain common sense to have one location for the nation's nuclear waste,'' House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., urged Clinton, who already has promised a veto.
''Only by opening a safe storage location for nuclear fuel can we continue to enjoy low-cost nuclear energy in the next century,'' he said as congressional leaders signed the bill Tuesday and ceremoniously sent it to the White House.
Ensign's Democratic opponent, Ed Bernstein, and the three Democrats in Nevada's congressional delegation seized on the opportunity to hammer home their message that Democratic votes in Congress are the only thing keeping nuclear waste out of Nevada.
Ensign said the GOP leadership gathering was a ''waste of time'' given President Clinton's pledge to veto the legislation that would send the waste to Nevada's Yucca Mountain.
''I don't understand why they are wasting so much energy on making a spectacle of this when they just don't have the votes,'' Ensign campaign spokesman Mike Slanker said of the Republican leaders.
''The leadership knows John is on the other side of this issue and is going to fight them.''
Ensign, a former congressman making his second Senate bid after narrowly losing to Sen. Harry Reid in 1998, is considered one of the GOP's best chances of picking up an open seat this year.
But he continually has had to explain why Nevada would be better represented by a Republican in Congress when Republicans are leading efforts to build the nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain.
Ensign arrived in Washington on Tuesday afternoon for a fund-raiser but was unaware Hastert and Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., president pro tem of the Senate, had scheduled the bill enrollment ceremony.
Ensign addressed the issue head-on when he announced his candidacy, arguing that Nevada needs a Republican in the Senate to help persuade fellow party members to oppose the shipment of nuclear waste to Nevada.
''He has been forced to fight his party and members of his own party over the last six years on this. This is not going to stop his ability to fight them,'' Slanker said.
Pete Ernaut, Ensign's campaign manager, said the first nuclear bill that would have sent waste to Nevada was crafted by Democrats and approved by a Democrat-controlled Congress in the late 1980s.
''This whole discussion that the Republican leadership is somehow out there pushing this neglects the history of the bill,'' he said.
Enrnaut said if Ensign were elected, he'd have the ear of Republican leaders.
''When those doors shut and those decisions are made, there isn't a Republican senator from the state of Nevada sitting there,'' Ernaut said.
''What vote can Ed Bernstein get that the minority whip, Harry Reid, hasn't already gotten?''