Congress yesterday cleared the way for President Bush’s approval of almost $8 billion in tax breaks for hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast businesses after an agreement to exclude casinos, tanning salons and similar businesses from the relief package.
However, lawmakers are having a more difficult time passing other items on the end-of-the-year agenda, including the $453 billion defense spending bill, which seems headed for a raucous fight over whether to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR).
The agenda in both chambers was still fluid, and both were expected to be in session through the weekend.
A spokeswoman for Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican and president pro tempore of the Senate, said he was urged to try to attach the ANWR provision to the defense spending bill by a bipartisan group of lawmakers.
Both House and Senate Appropriations leaders have approved the plan.
“If Mr. Stevens has the 60 votes, it’s fine with me,” said House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis, California Republican. Mr. Lewis said House and Senate negotiators might meet this afternoon to finalize the defense spending bill.
Senate Democrats were enraged at the potential add-on and said Republicans are using a popular bill for the troops to pass a pet project.
“Republicans have decided to put oil companies ahead of our troops,” said Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat. He vowed to try to block the defense bill if the drilling provision is attached.
A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said Democrats are counting votes to determine whether they can block the bill.
Republican leaders also have had trouble with a budget bill that would trim billions of dollars from entitlement programs. The ANWR provision has been the main sticking point, since the Senate budget-savings bill included the drilling provision but the House version did not. A group of more liberal House Republicans have pledged to derail the final bill if ANWR is included.
A pro-forma session was held last night to fulfill the requirement for a public meeting of the negotiators. Republican leaders hope a deal can be completed today and approved tomorrow by the House.
Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, a New York Republican who opposes ANWR, said it is “shameful” to try to break the budget bill impasse by attaching the drilling provision to the defense bill. But he also acknowledged it’s difficult to vote against a bill that funds the troops.
Meanwhile, Sen. Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, was pleased the $7.8 billion hurricane tax-relief measure was approved, though he grudgingly agreed to the exclusion of casinos, golf courses, tanning salons, liquor stores and similar businesses affected by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma.
Rep. Frank R. Wolf, of Virginia, led a small band of fellow Republicans in demanding the exclusions. But Mr. Lott pledged to reverse the exclusions the first chance he gets. “In the end, there aren’t going to be any,” he said.