- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Senate voted yesterday to allow drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, riding the strength of Republicans’ increased majority to overcome years of failure on the issue and deliver on one of President Bush’s campaign promises.

Senators voted 51-49 to keep in the budget provisions to allow drilling, although drilling supporters said they still must survive a series of other tests, including final passage of the budget. But yesterday’s vote gave them hope.

“This is an indicator,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican. “A majority in the Senate support opening up ANWR for exploration.”

Fellow Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens seemed relieved after working 24 years to win approval.

“This was a very close vote, and I’m delighted to be here, trying to smile again,” said Mr. Stevens, who last week told reporters that he was “clinically depressed” because of the long struggle.

The provision allows for drilling on up to 2,000 acres of the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain of the refuge, and supporters argued that doing so would be good for Alaska’s economy and for American energy independence.

But environmental groups said the roads and drilling operations would damage the area and promised to redouble their efforts to defeat the bill in upcoming legislative tests.

“We know the Arctic refuge is not the answer to America’s energy needs. It contains a few months’ worth of oil at national consumption levels,” said Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation. “The first drop would not come online for a decade. Drilling in the Arctic won’t make a dent in America’s energy imports.”

Both the House and Senate are working to pass their versions of the budget by the end of this week.

The ANWR vote came after years of failed attempts. In March 2003, drilling opponents were successful, voting 52-48 to deny drilling. Drilling opponents also won a year earlier, with 54 senators voting to uphold a filibuster to prevent consideration of drilling.

Drilling did pass as part of the budget in 1995, after Republicans won control of Congress, but President Clinton vetoed the budget reconciliation package that year.

Drilling opponents said including the provision in this year’s budget was a sneaky way to avoid a filibuster.

“This is an abuse of power. It’s also an abuse of common sense,” said Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, who sent out a fund-raising e-mail to try to stir up opposition. “Once again, special-interest effort is defeating the desires of the American people to preserve wilderness.”

In other budget action, Democrats, joined by five Republicans, lost an effort to make it harder for Mr. Bush to win extension of his tax cuts.

On a 50-50 vote, they failed to change budget rules that require only a simple majority to pass tax cuts beyond what’s called for in the budget. Increases in spending beyond what the budget specifies require 60 votes to pass.

“Fair is fair,” said Sen. George V. Voinovich, Ohio Republican, who led the fight for the change along with Sen. Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat.

Some Republicans called the amendment a back-door tax increase, and others said Congress must focus on spending cuts.

“I urge my colleagues, vote against this so-called pay-go provision and let’s go with this [budget] resolution the way it was written,” said Sen. Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican. “I hope we can get a conference report through. Because if we don’t, we’re doomed. If we can’t do these little tiny cuts, wait until we really have to deal with the big choice.”

Meanwhile in the House, Republican leaders headed off a revolt among some conservatives.

The leaders agreed to new rules sought by conservatives that would require a specific vote to break budget caps on spending bills that exceed the level authorized in the budget. Conservatives had threatened to join Democrats in opposing the budget, which would have ensured the measure’s failure.

Republicans also headed off Democrats’ attempt to force an early vote against a plan to include private accounts as part of Social Security, defeating a procedural motion as part of the budget debate.

The House budget does not include a provision to allow drilling in ANWR, although stand-alone measures have passed the House frequently and Republican aides said to expect the House to agree to drilling as part of the final budget conference report.

Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican and chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the last election cycle, said yesterday’s Senate vote was a direct result of Republican gains in November’s elections.

New supporters Sens. Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, Mel Martinez of Florida, John Thune of South Dakota and Jim DeMint of South Carolina, replaced Democratic Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina, Bob Graham of Florida, Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina. They offset new opponent Sen. Ken Salazar, Colorado Democrat.

Mr. Allen also said the issue helped Republicans retain Mrs. Murkowski’s seat. Even though she and her opponent supported drilling, Republicans were able to run ads of Mr. Clinton smiling as he vetoed the 1995 budget bill that included drilling.

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