Even Gibbons can see trouble for Bush on Yucca

You won't find a more loyal supporter of President Bush than Nevada Rep. Jim Gibbons.

Outside members of Bush's own family and Cabinet, Gibbons is at the top among the ranks of the president's faithful soldiers.

Hear Gibbons speak, and you'll learn how right Bush is on Iraq, al-Qaida, Saddam Hussein, the economy, and the constitutional controversies that have cropped up during the war.

But even Gibbons, loyal and true and lobbying diligently behind the scenes for a possible opening in the chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee, knows real political trouble when he sees it glowing in the distance.

And Gibbons sees it coming in the form of Bush's signing of legislation supporting the development of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.

"Yucca Mountain really makes a very complex political spectrum for the people of Nevada," Gibbons said. "There are so many people who are adamantly opposed to that issue here in the state. The president signed the bill that came to his desk after a vote of both the Senate and the House of Representatives. And as a result, he carries that on his shoulder now from the people of Nevada, that he signed the bill that said that they could go forward with the permitting process."

Some will say he was only stating the obvious and that Nevadans long ago tuned out the Yucca lament, but for a true-blue Republican stalwart like Gibbons, it amounts to a remarkable admission.

Such rhetoric is expected from Democrats. Senior U.S. Sen. Harry Reid doesn't pass a day without blasting Yucca and ridiculing the Bush administration for its encouragement and complicity. (He's careful to leave out the many times his fellow Democrats in Washington, Sen. John Kerry excepted, have betrayed the state's desires on the issue.)

Democrats hope that Bush's signature on the Yucca legislation will reverberate with undecided Nevada voters and tip the balance in their favor.

And they've tried to make hay out of the boneheaded plan, since aborted, by the state GOP to place language in the Republican platform calling for negotiating for Yucca benefits. Barnum & Bailey wishes it could get its elephants to roll over and beg for peanuts as quickly.

"That's one I completely disagreed with," Gibbons says quickly, "and we had them taken out .... It shows you the difference of opinion of people throughout the state of Nevada. Those people who are not adjacent to Yucca Mountain obviously have a different view of it."

As he well knows, most of the state's voters are adjacent. He rose to political power in the rurals, but that's not where his future is. Given an opportunity to get 100 percent of the rural vote or 60 percent of the vote in Clark and Washoe counties, Gibbons would take the urban corridors over the hard-right hinterlands, where you'll find more talking donkeys than Democrats.

Even his plug-in rhetoric doesn't sound convincing.

"In my view, the question of Yucca Mountain is going to be answered in the courts," he says.

"It can't be answered in the White House anymore. It can't be answered in Congress. It has to be answered in the courts because that's where it is today."

Politically speaking, it's in the Republicans' court.

Gibbons recently participated in the successful Nevada congressional effort to trim the 2005 budget for Yucca to $131 million, 85 percent less than the Department of Energy's request, at least temporarily crippling the project's progress. But it can't change the fact Bush signed off on Yucca Mountain.

"I think Yucca Mountain is a terrible, terribly heavy political weight to bear in this state," Gibbons says. "I think there's a lot of people who would like to see it a bigger issue. And there's a lot of us who think that it's part of the politics we deal with every day and that the Nevada voters will be able to judge who they want to lead this nation accordingly."

But if swing voters remain undecided, come Election Day the Republicans will have problems.

They've lost the Yucca Mountain issue, and even the president's loyal soldier admits it.

John L. Smith's column appears Fridays in the Nevada Appeal. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.


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