For the second year in a row, the House voted overwhelmingly yesterday to kill the Superconducting Super Collider, the giant atom-smasher that aims to illuminate the nature of matter itself. But SSC supporters held on to hope that the Senate will once again manage to keep the project alive.
House opponents said the $10 billion project now under construction in Waxahachie, Tex., is an exercise in pure science with no practical application, impossible to justify in a fiscal crisis. "The costs are immediate, real, uncontrolled and escalating," said Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.). "The benefits are distant, theoretical and limited. You don't have to be an atomic scientist to figure out how that calculation works out."
Supporters, beaten by 130 votes, countered that the SSC is crucial to U.S. industrial competitiveness and a test of whether the country still has its pioneering spirit. "I don't want to be a part of a generation that has lost its nerve, that concedes . . . that we are incapable of exploring the unknown," said Rep. Martin Frost (D-Tex.).
The SSC, funded by the Department of Energy and scheduled for completion by the turn of the century, is designed to accelerate protons in opposite directions at close to the speed of light through a 54-mile underground oval tunnel, enabling scientists to study what happens when the particles collide. It could permanently employ as many as 2,000 scientists if completed.
President Clinton, like former president George Bush, supports the project. Yesterday Clinton said, "Maybe the Senate will save it and we can save it in conference. I always anticipated that if we were going to save the super collider it would have to come in a conference."
Yesterday's House vote of 280 to 150 suggested that the experiment has lost momentum there. Last year's vote was 232 to 181.
Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), a principal supporter, yesterday predicted "a close vote, certainly closer than last year" in the Senate. "I think it's still out there to be won or lost," he said. Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), who chairs the Senate Energy Committee, was more confident, saying: "I would predict success." A vote is expected after the August recess.
The House vote came two days after government auditors criticized "a pattern of unreasonable costs" on the project. In a draft report cited by opponents yesterday, auditors from the Energy Department's Office of the Inspector General identified $60 million in excessive charges by SSC subcontractors.
The report also said the government's prime contractor -- a nonprofit organization called Universities Research Association Inc. (URA) -- wasted money on perks such as hotel rooms and a 16-page color pamphlet on Dallas for distribution to new employees.
The auditors complained that URA employees hampered the audit by failing to provide documents, arbitrarily classifying documents as confidential and restricting interviews. The report was released by the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit group.
Russ Wylie, SSC director of external affairs, said the auditors wrongly criticized some subcontracts for "uncontrollable growth" because they misunderstood how they were designed. He also said the auditors "went to the wrong people" for information and demanded sensitive information on contracts not yet awarded.
The auditors cited excessive charges including: $11,000 for a subcontractor's 1991 Christmas party at a major Dallas hotel; $3,600 for 150 prime rib dinners for another Christmas celebration; $600 for a 10-foot-high Christmas tree for the laboratory lobby; $39,000 for a subcontractor's daily coffee and beverage service; $600 to celebrate a subcontractor employee's election to a professional organization; and $56,000 to rent, water, feed, trim, clean, dust and inspect tropical plants.
The auditors specifically criticized URA's use of a discretionary account, challenging all $630,000 in account expenditures from 1989 to 1992. Those included $2,425 for liquor, $35,000 for a holiday party, $6,250 for a catered dinner, $14,450 for an appreciation dinner and thousands of dollars for key chains, T-shirts, insurance for art work, flowers, donations to charity and business cards. Laboratory employees also overspent on furniture, the audit found, paying $1,295 for an oak rolltop desk, $728 apiece for four lounge chairs, $1,473 for a sofa and $328 apiece for three cube tables for a conference room.