UPDATE, 8:03 a.m.: I'll expand on this topic in my Saturday print column, but here's an updated post that includes a statement from Labrador.
The House of Representatives voted Wednesday to maintain funding for nuclear energy research — a cornerstone of the Idaho National Laboratory's mission.
But that vote only came after Republicans looked to slash nuclear research funding by roughly two-thirds, a move that could have crippled research in INL. First Congressional District Rep. Raul Labrador supported this research cut; 2nd District Rep. Mike Simpson opposed the cut.
Why did Labrador make this vote? "I have voted consistently to limit federal energy subsidies," he said in a statement Thursday evening. "In the most recent Energy and Water Appropriations bill, I voted to reduce funding for renewable energy programs, traditional fossil fuel programs, and nuclear energy programs. I believe that the federal government shouldn’t be using subsidies to pick winners and losers in a free market. We must work together to reduce the $15 trillion dollar national debt."
Let's try to put the proposed cut into some perspective.
The federal Energy Department spends $765 million a year on nuclear energy research. Idaho doesn't get all of that money — but as the Energy Department's lead nuclear energy site, it is the program's prime benefactor. For 2011-12, for example, Idaho received $429.9 million in nuclear energy funding. This is the INL's largest budget single line item, eclipsing all other programs, including nuclear cleanup.
Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., moved Tuesday to cut $514 million from the $765 million nuclear energy research budget. His objective, according to Pete Kasperowicz of The Hill, was to eliminate all nuclear research subsidies to private industry. The amendment failed on a 106-281 vote that split House Republicans; Labrador was among 91 House Republicans who voted yes, Simpson was among 134 House Republicans voting no.
On Wednesday, the House approved the Energy Department budget in full — a budget that includes $765 million for nuclear energy research. Said Simpson after the vote: “Idaho National Laboratory plays a vital national and international role in leading the development of new nuclear technologies, and this bill will help maintain and expand that role in the future. The House had to make some very difficult choices about where to focus limited taxpayer resources, and I am very grateful for the confidence my colleagues have shown for nuclear energy in this bill.”
The final vote Wednesday: 255 yes, 165 no. And this time, after the proposed budget cuts failed, Labrador joined the majority and supported the final bill. Simpson also voted yes.
Beyond the votes, it will be interesting to see if Labrador's vote to cut energy research has any political repercussions. That's not as likely in Labrador's 1st District, where communities don't have a direct stake in INL research. But if there's anything to the persistent rumors that Labrador is looking at a run for governor in 2014, will this vote hurt him as he looks to introduce himself to voters in Eastern Idaho?
Only time will tell.