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Nuclear Industry Donations Target Moderate Dems

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2009/07/cooling-towers.jpgiStockphoto

Nuclear power is courting some new friends as it pushes for government subsidies in the sweeping climate bill being debated in the Senate.

For the last decade, the biggest players in the nuclear industry lent most of their financial backing to Republican candidates and lawmakers, who have been the strongest supporters of nuclear energy. But this year, as the Senate takes up cap-and-trade legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions**, **moderate Democrats have become the industry’s prime target.

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Congress.jpg

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

“It is the so-called Blue Dogs and the moderate Democrats who are going to tip the balance one way or the other [on nuclear incentives in the climate bill],” said Mitchell Singer, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, a nuclear lobbying group and a leading industry donor to political candidates. “Those are the ones we feel the need to educate.”

A TWI analysis of 2009 campaign contributions by nuclear advocacy groups suggests this is indeed their strategy. This week, political action committees, which raise money for candidates, filed their monthly reports to the Federal Election Commission. The numbers reveal that the two biggest industry donors to congressional candidates, the Nuclear Energy Institute and General Atomics, made most of their contributions to Democrats, and particularly moderate and conservative Democrats.

This marks a break from recent trends. Since 2000, both groups had sent a large majority of their donations to Republicans in every election cycle. In 2007-2008, for example, even with Democrats in control of Congress, the Nuclear Energy Institute gave money to 25 Republican and 15 Democratic senators and Senate candidates. In 2009, it has donated to eight Democratic senators and just five Republicans.

Most of this year’s Democratic recipients in the Senate come from the party’s moderate wing, including Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and James Webb of Virginia ($1,000 each); Evan Bayh of Indiana and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota ($2,500 each); and Tom Carper of Delaware ($3,120).

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2009/07/NEI-parties-367x275.jpgThe Nuclear Energy Institute has also made the maximum $5,000 donation this year to a number of political action committees that fund moderate Democrats, including the Blue Dog PAC, Bridge PAC, Moderate Democrats PAC and New Democrat Coalition PAC. Its most recent reported donation — $500 on June 23 — was to Priority PAC, the leadership PAC of the conservative Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.).

Likewise, General Atomics, which in 2007-2008 gave to 19 Republican Senate candidates ($68,000) and 10 Democrats ($41,500), this year has made donations to three Democrats ($9,000) and three Republicans ($7,500), in addition to the $8,000 it gave to the recent Republican-turned-Democrat Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. The Democrats include the moderate Dorgan ($2,000) and the more liberal chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Barbara Boxer of California ($2,000). General Atomics also donated $15,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in January.

In the legislative debate, Republicans have pushed for expanded loan guarantees for nuclear plants and the construction of up to 100 new nuclear facilities. Many liberal Democrats and environmentalists argue that nuclear energy is expensive and slow to get off the ground, and that increases in nuclear power could come at the expense of true renewables like wind and solar.

In the middle stand the moderate Democrats — and some, such as Nelson, have provided evidence that the nuclear industry’s efforts may bear fruit. On May 25, Nelson penned a column in the McCook Daily Gazette, in which he wrote, “It makes abundant sense to include expanding nuclear energy in such legislation.” According to Nelson, nuclear power provides a third of Nebraska’s electricity.

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NEI-this-year2.jpg

Members of Congress routinely take money from industries that hold stakes in their respective states. Likewise, industry groups frequently target lawmakers who are likely to be sympathetic to their cause.

“These organizations aren’t doing it out of the goodness of their heart,” said Dave Levinthal, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, which compiles campaign finance data, including the figures for 2007-2008 cited here. “They’re doing it for very specific reasons.”

The Nuclear Energy Institute also lobbies, spending $580,000 in the first quarter this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Singer described this lobbying effort as an educational campaign to inform members of Congress and their staffs.

“It’s kind of like going to class,” he said. “We explain the value of nuclear — what it can do and why it is needed.” He declined to specify which legislators have participated in these sessions.

Singer maintains that nuclear energy is an issue that can cross party lines, citing supportive statements from President Obama and Energy Secretary Steven Chu. “We never approach nuclear as a partisan issue,” said Singer. But he acknowledged that “a lot of Republicans are very strong supporters, particularly in states with nuclear power.”

Michael Marriotte, director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, which opposes the expansion of nuclear power, agrees that there is nothing overtly ideological about the nuclear debate. “Nuclear’s always been a pretty bipartisan issue on both sides,” he said. “It’s actually probably more partisan now than it’s ever been.” He added that he is puzzled by the recent staunch Republican support for nuclear power. “It doesn’t make sense from a fiscally conservative standpoint to spend billions and billions on nuclear power,” he said.

With a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, Democrats should theoretically be able to pass their energy agenda without making concessions to Republicans. But given the relatively conservative nature of a number of Democrats — and the nuclear industry’s efforts to sway this contingent — there is a real possibility that a nuclear expansion will be necessary to bring enough “yes” votes on board.

“Everyone’s trying to figure out how to get to 60 votes,” said Marriotte. “And clearly you can’t do it without moderates. The industry is trying to make nuclear power the issue that brings over some of the moderates.”

Julie Gauthier contributed research assistance for this report.

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