- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 2, 2002

Senate Democrats are trying to back out of an agreement on choosing the House-Senate conference committee on energy because the panel would include too many supporters of President Bush's plan to drill for oil in Alaska.

The unanimous consent agreement approved by the full Senate last week said six Democrats from the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and three Democrats on the Finance Committee would be selected to hammer out the final details of the energy package.

But some Democrats on those panels support the president's proposal to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Instead, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle wants to pluck outspoken opponents of ANWR drilling from other committees.

"Can't they read the unanimous consent agreement? It says what it says, and they agreed to it and they proposed it," said Sen. Frank H. Murkowski, Alaska Republican and ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The conference committee must iron out differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill. The House bill contains the drilling provision; the Senate version does not.

By selecting anti-drilling Democrats, Mr. Daschle hopes to stack the deck against ANWR, Republicans say. House Republicans are vowing to keep ANWR in the final version of the bill.

Democrats are proposing the conference include five senators who do not serve on the Energy Committee: Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut; James M. Jeffords, Vermont independent; John F. Kerry of Massachusetts; Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina; and Harry Reid of Nevada. The only Energy Committee Democrat to be proposed for the conference committee is the panel's chairman, Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico.

Mr. Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, said yesterday no appointments are final, but that the final selection of conferees will now come from as many as eight committees.

"It's no secret we had a lot of involvement in our caucus," Mr. Daschle said.

"We had seven or eight specific committees that were involved in the creation of the bill. Those committees clearly have to be represented in some way, and so that's what we have suggested," Mr. Daschle said. "So that is what we're currently discussing, and we haven't come to any final conclusion about the overall number of conferees."

A Senate Republican leadership aide said Mr. Daschle fears that his Energy Committee members favor oil production and ANWR drilling and would fight for it in the conference. Sens. Daniel K. Akaka of Hawaii and Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana both support oil drilling.

"It's an energy bill. The focus should be on members who sit on the Energy Committee," the aide said.

Mr. Murkowski said Republicans are abiding by the agreement and selecting their seven conferees from the two agreed-upon committees in order of seniority.

"Does a unanimous consent mean anything around here?" Mr. Murkowski asked.

Republicans say their decision to open the final negotiations to TV cameras may have been a factor in high-profile Democrats wanting in on the action.

Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lieberman are potential presidential candidates, and both have blocked drilling in ANWR, a lightning-rod issue for Democrats.

"We have a unanimous consent agreement, and suddenly the idea of this being a public, open conference appeals to some of the folks that are inclined to be [blinded] by publicity," Mr. Murkowski said.

House Republicans will take the lead on the conference committee and are gearing up for a fight.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey said House appointees will be "rigorously committed to the House position," which includes ANWR.

"We believe we produced the earlier, better legislative product, and we would want our conferees to go fight for this superior product to be the outcome of the conference," he said. "[Not having a bill] is better than the Senate bill."

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