Senate Says No to Arctic Oil Drilling

The GOP can’t break a filibuster. But it passes $40 billion in budget cuts after the vice president returns from abroad to break a tie.

Source of this article – Los Angeles Times, December 22, 2005.

By Richard Simon and Joel Havemann, Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Wednesday blocked a major push to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling while approving the first significant belt-tightening in federal spending in nearly a decade.

Supporters of the drilling proposal, led by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), thought that high gasoline prices and bigger GOP majorities in the House and Senate would make this the year they would achieve their long-sought goal. But they ended up falling a few votes short of overcoming a Democratic-led filibuster.

Earlier in the day, nearly $40 billion in cuts to the federal budget were approved by the narrowest of margins, with Vice President Dick Cheney cutting short a trip to the Middle East to return to break a 50-50 tie.

The spending cuts — largely aimed at student loans, Medicare and Medicaid, and criticized by Democrats and some Republicans as hurting the poor — were a victory for President Bush, who had called for a more determined drive to reduce the deficit. But the drilling measure’s defeat was a blow to him, as he had pursued opening the Alaskan refuge to energy exploration since taking office.

The day was emblematic of a tumultuous session in which Republicans chalked up some legislative victories but failed to accomplish several priorities because of internal divisions. That may portend an even more rancorous session next year, as both parties gear up for the 2006 midterm elections.

Much of Wednesday’s tension was sparked by the drilling debate, which featured frantic last-minute lobbying, emotional remarks and uncertainty about the outcome until the roll call.

The Arctic measure drew opposition on environmental grounds and because Stevens — one of the Senate’s most adroit behind-the-scenes players — had attached it to a $453-billion military spending bill, considered “must-pass” legislation.

Critics said Stevens’ gambit violated Senate rules.

“I love my friend from Alaska,” Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) said during the debate. “But I love the Senate more.” They have served in the chamber together since the late 1960s, when Stevens joined; Byrd was first elected in 1958.

Stevens delivered an impassioned appeal for a cause he has pursued for 25 years. Sporting an Incredible Hulk necktie that he wears for major legislative battles, and asking the “good Lord to help me keep my temper,” he reminded colleagues of his attention to their needs when he served in recent years as Appropriations Committee chairman.

But the Senate stripped the drilling provision from the military spending bill, which passed later in the evening. That bill now returns to the House for approval.

Nearing the end of the long day, an angry Stevens told his colleagues: “This has been the saddest day of my life.”

Stevens, who had written the legislation to provide oil revenue for domestic programs like energy assistance for low-income households, warned his Senate opponents that they were depriving their states of money, and vowed: “I’m going to go to every one of your states and I’m going to tell them what you’ve done.”

A number of Democrats acknowledged they felt the political pressure not only of going up against Stevens, but also of casting a vote that Republicans could portray as anti-military.

“This was one of those moments [when] fighting one of the most powerful senators there is … took a lot of guts for a lot of people,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), a longtime drilling foe.

Democrats accused Stevens of holding the defense bill hostage to pursue his favorite cause.

“Drilling will not give us more energy security, but it will carry huge environmental costs,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). She was joined by California’s other senator, Democrat Barbara Boxer, in opposing drilling.

Stevens and his allies needed 60 votes in the 100-seat Senate to end the filibuster of the energy initiative; they ended up with 57. The final tally was 56 to 44 in favor of closing debate, because at the last moment Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) cast a “no” vote, a procedural move that gives the GOP the option of reconsidering the matter. The party appeared unlikely to do so, however.

Opening a portion of the refuge to energy exploration has long been among the nation’s most intensely fought environmental proposals. Drilling proponents suggest the oil is critical to national security and economic growth.

Federal estimates say the equivalent of 10 billion barrels of oil lies beneath the refuge’s tundra. The U.S. consumes about 20 million barrels of oil a day.

Environmentalists have contended that drilling would threaten one of the nation’s great wilderness areas yet make a negligible dent in oil imports.

Drilling supporters were hopeful after Senate elections last year put four pro-drilling Republicans in place of anti-drilling Democrats.

Senate GOP leaders this year initially sought to overcome Democratic opposition by attaching the drilling provision to the budget-cutting measure, which cannot be filibustered. But the provision was dropped after it ran into unexpected opposition in the House.

Last week, Stevens attached the proposal to the defense spending bill.

As Wednesday’s vote approached, pro- and anti-drilling lobbyists stood behind a rope outside the Senate chamber, trying to cajole any wavering senators to their side. Leaders of both parties buttonholed senators as they walked into the chamber. Former President Carter, a drilling opponent, called a number of lawmakers.

All but two Republicans — Mike DeWine of Ohio and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, both running for reelection next year — voted to end the filibuster. Joining the Republican majority were four Democrats: Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, and Daniel K. Akaka and Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii.

Drilling proponents vowed to keep up the fight.

“We will try again,” said Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.).

Sierra Club lobbyist Melinda Pierce said she was optimistic that environmental groups could keep thwarting the plan: “With all the stars aligned for [drilling supporters] — high gas prices, war in Iraq, Republican control of the Congress and the presidency — if they can’t pass it now, how can they possibly pass it in the future, especially as we approach an election year?”

Meanwhile, Republican leaders cheered Senate passage of the bill to cut nearly $40 billion in federal spending over the next five years. The largest cuts were in student loans, Medicaid and Medicare.

Democrats kept the bill from being sent to Bush for his signature by making slight changes to the House version.

And in a sign of the bitter partisanship of the legislative session, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) angered House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) by refusing to agree to an expedited procedure in which the bill could be approved by a handful of House members.

The House had approved the bill on a 212-206 vote that included no Democratic supporters at 6:07 a.m. Monday after a lengthy debate. Pelosi wants the House to vote on the bill in “the light of day,” with representatives back in Washington “to make clear their values to the American people,” she said in a statement.

Most House members have left Washington for the holidays, so it was not immediately clear how soon the chamber would take up the slightly revised bill. But whether the House acts in the waning days of 2005 or early next year, the measure is expected to pass.

Bush called the Senate vote on the bill a “victory for taxpayers, fiscal restraint and responsible budgeting,” saying it would keep on track efforts to the cut the federal deficit in half by 2009. The deficit for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 was $319 billion.

The bill’s savings represent a small percentage of the total federal spending. Still, this marks the first time since 1997 that Congress has taken even a modest step toward slowing the growth of spending for popular domestic programs.

“This is the only chance you are going to have this year … to step forward and actually do something about deficit spending,” Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) told his colleagues.

“This is our responsibility to our children,” he said.

But Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), noting that Republicans plan to push for tax cuts next year, said: “How can it be that we’re about to cut student loans, Medicare and Medicaid, and then turn around and provide even more tax breaks to special interests and multimillionaires? Have we no sense of decency? Have we no sense of shame?”

Joining all Senate Democrats and one independent in voting against the budget cuts were five Republicans — Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Gordon H. Smith of Oregon, Chafee and DeWine.

The budget-cutting bill was a Republican highlight for the year, among other victories including passage of a longdebated energy and highway measure, a Central American trade agreement, and legislation shielding gun makers and gun sellers from lawsuits arising from misuse of their weapons.

But the GOP had plenty of setbacks in the year too. An effort to reconcile differences between House and Senate tax-cut bills was put off until next year, as was the debate over immigration policy. And Social Security restructuring, named the party’s top Senate priority, never gained momentum.

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