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Multibillion Dollar Super Collider Survives Congressional Challenge

By Helen Dewar
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON

The multibillion-dollar superconducting super collider survived its most serious challenge so far in Congress Thursday, saved by some of the Senate's most vocal budget-cutters.

Senators voted 57 to 42 to continue the project, which the House had voted to eliminate.

Thirty-three senators who voted against President Clinton's budget package, largely on grounds it did not include enough spending cuts, brushed aside critics' charges that the giant Texas atom smasher amounted to a high-tech "piece of pork" and voted to spend $640 million on it next year.

Among them were Minority Leader Robert J. Dole, R-Kan., Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, and several Democrats who split with Clinton over the budget, including Sens. J. Bennett Johnston, La., and David L. Boren, Okla.

The Senate vote was critical because the House earlier had voted 280 to 150 to kill the project and its foes were given a long-shot chance of prevailing in the Senate because of concern over the deficit. They picked up 10 votes from last year but still fell short, largely because so many states share in contracts and other benefits from the project.

The issue now goes to a House-Senate conferece as part of a $22.5 billion spending bill for fiscal 1994 energy and water projects. Faced with a similar clash between the two chambers last year, conferees agreed to continue construction of the SSC.

The huge project, estimated to cost $10 billion or more when completed over the next decade, is the largest science project in history -- a 54-mile tunnel with magnets to force high-speed collision of protons in a way that scientists hope can reveal the nature of matter and other mysteries of the universe.

Supporters, led by Johnston, in whose state the magnets are being built, described the project as essential to U.S. leadership in scientific breakthroughs and accused its opponents of indulging in "flat earth" thinking.

"I's not a member of the flat-earth society; I'm a member of the flat-broke society and goin' broker every day," responded Sen. Dale Bumpers, D-Ark., who tried unsuccessfully to cut the appropriation to $220 million, enough to close down construction.

Bumpers noted the project's champions had been demanding huge spending cuts and added, "I've got a dog with a longer memory than the United States Senate."

Bumpers contended that the project's cost has tripled from the estimated $4.4 billion in 1987. But Johnston said the Department of Energy can keep the cost at its current estimate of $8.4 billion, plus about $1.5 billion from a three-year stretchout proposed by Clinton, and noted management improvements must be made before any more money is released.