WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will renominate Republican Kristine Svinicki to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, defying opposition from his own party’s Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the White House said on Thursday.
Republicans want Svinicki, whose term as a commissioner expires in June, to stay on the panel and assert that the process has been held up because she, along with three other commission members, accused current NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko, a Democrat, of bullying women.
A vacancy could cause delays in commission decisions on safety reforms at U.S. nuclear plants that the NRC ordered after last year’s disaster at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant.
“The president will renominate Ms. Svinicki,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters, confirming a Reuters report. “He doesn’t want to have a break in service in June when her current term expires.”
Scheduling a Senate hearing and vote on Svinicki will now be up to Reid, a Democrat who has said he opposes her because she is too close to the nuclear industry she regulates and does not deserve the job.
Svinicki, 45, is currently in Africa for a nuclear meeting in Namibia where she is speaking, followed by another conference in South Africa. She could not be reached for comment.
A quiet and serious nuclear engineer who shuns the media spotlight, Svinicki worked at the Energy Department and then for Republicans in the Senate before her appointment to the NRC in 2008.
“She has performed in a manner that is above reproach,” Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, told a news conference, calling the delay in nominating Svinicki as “a level of retribution.”
“She has had the courage to step forward and has blown the whistle on the chairman, and the chairman happens to be a good friend to Senator Reid,” Murkowski said.
The move by the Democratic president may be seen as a rare gesture of bipartisanship in an election year. Relations between the White House and congressional Republicans are tense after months of bruising standoffs over budget and deficit issues.
Republicans are rallying behind Svinicki as they try to improve their popularity among women voters in the run-up to the November 6 presidential election.
Her situation has been spotlighted in speeches on two consecutive days by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who first accused the White House of delay before Reuters reported on Thursday that the renomination would go ahead.
Reid’s opposition has drawn renewed attention to one of the most toxic episodes in the fractious NRC’s history.
Last year, Svinicki and the three other commissioners at the commission - two Democrats, two Republicans - took the unprecedented step of complaining to the White House about the management style of NRC chairman Jaczko.
Their concerns were made public in December during congressional hearings in which the commissioners accused Jaczko - a former Reid policy aide - of berating senior women NRC staff members, bringing them to tears in front of others.
Jaczko has denied the accusations.
The White House’s Carney told reporters on Thursday he was not aware of any move to ask Jaczko to step down.
Senate Republicans have requested a new report from the NRC’s internal watchdog concerning Jaczko, which is expected to be completed soon, a Senate aide said.
Republicans on the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee will also probe concerns at a hearing slated for May 31.
Democrats and Republicans have long fought over appointments to the NRC. Reid famously held up about 175 political appointments by former President George W. Bush until he nominated Jaczko as a commissioner.
Jaczko had helped the Nevada senator fight a nuclear waste dump planned for Yucca Mountain while he was on his staff.
Reid has defended Jaczko as chairman, saying he has been targeted by those who would slow industry safety reforms following the Fukushima disaster.
“Senator Reid opposes Commissioner Svinicki’s renomination because she lied to Congress about her past work on Yucca Mountain,” Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Reid, said in a statement.
Senator Barbara Boxer, chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, believes Svinicki should be replaced and has accused her of being misleading during a 2007 confirmation hearing about the extent of her work on the Yucca project.
Svinicki has said she did not mischaracterize the extent of her work on Yucca during her time at the Energy Department, but Boxer has said technical reports authored by Svinicki seem to show she was deeply involved with the project.
Republicans brushed off Reid’s accusation. “The president didn’t seem to think it was a concern, and neither do we,” Republican Senator John Barrasso told the news conference.
Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent who is a member of the environment committee, said he opposes Svinicki’s appointment because he said she rushed to help renew a license for a controversial power plant in his state of Vermont.
Editing by Will Dunham