The Senate's energy chief last week revamped an old strategy to almost guarantee passage of legislation that would open up parts of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration.
Sen. Pete V. Domenici, as chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, plans to incorporate ANWR tax incentives and the $3.2 billion in projected revenues from oil development into this year's unwritten budget resolution.
The New Mexico Republican said he will introduce the ANWR language as a budget reconciliation, which would not be subject to a filibuster and would pass with a simple majority.
The ANWR issue has held up passage of the energy package because of ardent opposition by Senate Democrats and some Republicans.
"There are some who oppose ANWR who feel that in order for it to happen it must have 60 votes" to avoid a filibuster, Mr. Domenici said. "This way, under the reconciliation " and I have done this before " the supporters and opposers have an equal chance."
Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Jim Bunning of Kentucky, Pat Roberts of Kansas and John Thune of South Dakota left to tour ANWR and oil-drilling sites in Alaska on Friday.
Mrs. Murkowski said new "diagonal drilling" technology that allows a single pumping station to extract oil from multiple wells at once should convince environmentalists that wildlife will not be disturbed if ANWR exploration and the subsequent drilling is allowed.
"I make the claim that what we do in Alaska in terms of oil and gas drilling is in balance with the environment and as nondisruptive as possible," Mrs. Murkowski said. "We have figured out how to do it right."
With oil prices soaring to $55 a barrel, Congress is focused on relieving the country's dependence on foreign oil and natural gas.
Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton said Section 1002, the area of ANWR set aside by President Carter for oil exploration, could contain 5.7 million to 16 million barrels of oil or more. And she said it could hold even larger dividends of natural gas stores.
"[Arctic National Wildlife Refuge] could provide every drop of gas and other oil-based products for the state of New Mexico for 200 years," she said.
Mr. Domenici agreed, saying the new technology should address environmentalists' concerns.
"If I find that what we have been told isn't right, then I could change my mind, but if it is, we can't afford to wait any longer," he said.
The reconciliation plan could lead to an inevitable passage of ANWR exploration.
Established in 1974, budget reconciliation was created to expedite the consideration of mandatory spending programs -- such as Social Security and Medicare -- tax laws or projected revenues.
If the budget committee adopts the ANWR language, debate on the tax provisions on the Senate floor would be limited to 20 hours and make it "filibuster proof," since holding up budget measures is against chamber rules.
However, the language could be defeated on the floor through amendments or a simple majority vote, but that is unlikely with Republicans controlling 55 seats in the Senate.
Democrats have not yet weighed in on the approach, but some are bound to try to defeat the measure.