ANWR debate returns to Senate

Supporters of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) marshaled their forces to take on a traditional bulkhead for opponents, the U.S. Senate, after the proponents managed to overcome House opposition this weekend when leaders attached the provision to a “must pass” military-spending bill.

“All eyes now turn back to the Senate,” a release from the Sierra Club said after the early-morning House vote in favor of the defense bill that included ANWR drilling.

On the advice of Sen. Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican who has directed the legislative strategy, oil companies and labor-group lobbyists narrowed their efforts to a small group of senators perceived to be undecided, according to one lobbyist.

The list included Sens. Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln, two Arkansas Democrats, and Sens. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who has been among the most vocal critics of efforts to attach ANWR to a spending bill.

“It’s a matter of external forces trying to put the right amount of pressure at the right point of time,” one oil lobbyist said.

The battle lines over drilling in Alaska’s northern coastal plain are as set as a wartime trench: oil companies and their Republican and Western congressional allies on one side, environmental groups and Democrats and northeastern Republicans on the other.

But the last-ditch effort to attach ANWR to a seemingly unrelated defense-appropriations bill, which also now includes hurricane relief, has prompted critics to rail against what they see as an abuse of parliamentary powers. Opponents believe the new criticism has drawn new supporters to their cause.

“This is the kind of vote that gets not just Arctic supporters but a number of people who will object to Senator Stevens abusing the rules of the Senate,” said Melinda Pierce, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club.

Yesterday, Senate Democrats promised to invoke Rule 28, which prohibits extraneous additions to bills from being debated in conference committee, as a way to remove the ANWR provision from the bill.

If the Senate parliamentarian accepts that challenge, it would take a majority of votes in the Senate to keep ANWR in the bill.

Courtney Schikora, Stevens’s press secretary, argued that ANWR is germane to the defense spending bill because its oil reserves are “absolutely essential to the nation’s national security.”

“Our men and women need this production,” she said.

Groups such as the American Petroleum Institute, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the National Association of Manufacturers have helped Stevens lobby for support.

In a letter sent Saturday before the unusual weekend House vote, NAM President John Engler warned that his group will consider all votes on the defense bill as possible key manufacturing votes in the NAM voting record.

“U.S. manufacturing is facing the most severe energy price spikes in history, due in large part to government policy decisions and a fundamental imbalance in our domestic energy supply,” Engler wrote.

Supporters have come close to winning this long-running congressional debate before. Perhaps they came the closest in 1995 when a Republican Congress passed ANWR drilling as part of a larger bill. President Clinton vetoed it.

Since then, the House included ANWR in its comprehensive energy bill on several occasions, only to be thwarted by the Senate. Supporters could not overcome threats of a filibuster, which takes 60 votes to overcome.

With President Bush reelected and stronger Republican majorities in both the Senate and the House, Congress looked poised to pass ANWR. The Senate and House even included budget instructions last spring that assumed revenues from ANWR oil leasing.

The Senate then inserted the ANWR provision into its budget-reconciliation bill, which included specific instructions to government agencies on how to raise revenues or cut spending. This time, House moderates refused to support it, forcing leaders, who desperately wanted to shore up their conservative base with a budget-reduction bill, to jettison ANWR from the budget bill.

Stymied, Stevens, who with Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, had threatened to block the budget bill if it did not include ANWR, looked for other vehicles.

He found a good one: the defense-spending bill. In a late-night session, the House voted 308-106 to pass the bill with the ANWR language intact.

A vote on the rule that allowed the bill to be brought to the floor was much closer: 214-201, indicating that opposition to the maneuver to attach ANWR was significant in the House as well.