On April 17, seven Senate Republican staffers sat in a room in the Capitol with Kristine Svinicki, a GOP member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission whose term was set to expire at the end of June. The aides had one question for Svinicki: Do you want us to fight for your job? Her answer was a firm yes.
The next day, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., gave an impassioned speech on the Senate floor about Svinicki, raising the profile of her stalled nomination and setting off a series of events expected to culminate this week with the Senate not only confirming Svinicki to a second five-year term, but also approving a new chairwoman for the embattled commission.
But the story actually began long before that pivotal meeting.
Svinicki’s renomination was originally supposed to be paired with that of William Ostendorff, another Republican member of the NRC, but the plan went awry when Ostendorff was confirmed to a second term just before his first one expired last summer.
“The idea to break that pairing ... it was a strategic blunder,” said a House GOP committee aide, explaining that without being coupled with another appointee, Svinicki’s reappointment was at risk of getting stuck at the White House.
A key problem for Svinicki was her past support for maintaining the controversial nuclear-waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, the home state of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who had vowed to kill the project. Reid got his way—partly with the help of a former aide, NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko—when President Obama canceled the project in 2009, and the Senate Democratic leader wanted to make sure it was never revived.
Last year, the White House had told Republicans that Svinicki’s reappointment to the NRC would be no problem and that her papers would be sent up to the Senate by October, according to a Senate GOP aide. But the date kept slipping.
Then all hell broke loose at the NRC. In October, all four of Jaczko’s fellow commissioners, including Svinicki, made accusations against him and wrote to then-White House Chief of Staff William Daley to tell him that the chairman had created “a chilled work environment” at the commission with his “bullying” management style. Jaczko was already under fire after the NRC’s inspector general had concluded in June 2011 that he had not been forthcoming with his fellow commissioners about the Yucca project’s termination.
The letter led to congressional hearings and Jaczko was on the ropes. He didn’t help himself in February and March by twice casting the only dissenting votes when the NRC approved new licenses for nuclear reactors in Georgia and South Carolina.
Meanwhile, pressure was building among Republicans to get Svinicki’s nomination to the Senate floor in time for her to be confirmed before her term expired on June 30. When Republican leaders contacted the White House, they learned that Reid had been lobbying hard for Svinicki not to be reappointed.
That’s when McConnell policy adviser Neil Chatterjee convened the meeting in the Capitol with Svinicki to plot a strategy for getting her confirmed. Also in attendance were Svinicki Chief of Staff Jeffry Sharkey; McKie Campbell, staff director for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; Brian Clifford, a legislative aide for Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo.; Jeff Wood, counsel to Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.; Dave Banks, deputy staff director to Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla.; and Karen Billups, minority chief counsel at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Two days after the meeting, and following McConnell’s fiery floor statement, White House officials made it known that they were snubbing Reid’s objections and renominating Svinicki.
“Once her papers were sent up, the dam broke,” a Senate GOP aide told National Journal Daily. The aide explained that Republicans suspected Reid was planning to hold Svinicki’s nomination hostage in an attempt to get Jaczko another term before his current one would have expired next year.
The day after the White House cleared Svinicki’s nomination, Jaczko called an impromptu news conference at the National Press Club. Rumors circulated that he was stepping down, but Jaczko used the opportunity to deny the allegations against him.
One month later, though, he announced he would resign as soon as a replacement was confirmed by the Senate, and just three days after that the White House nominated George Mason University professor Allison Macfarlane to the post.
Macfarlane, a vocal critic of Yucca Mountain, didn’t come out of nowhere. Reid had unsuccessfully pushed for her nomination to the NRC in 2007, and the environmental science professor had served on the Obama administration’s blue-ribbon panel on nuclear waste. Macfarlane wasn’t an ideal choice for Republicans, but she was no Jaczko—and that’s what mattered.
“The only way to get Jaczko out was to get Macfarlane,” a Senate GOP aide said. “We’d rather have Svinicki for five, and they get Macfarlane for one.... She can’t possibly govern the way that [Jaczko] does.”