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The Nation

Senate Blocks Oil Drilling in Arctic Reserve

Congress: Backers of exploration in the wildlife refuge fall well short of needed votes, dealing Bush a major defeat and clouding future energy legislation.

April 19, 2002|RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday blocked oil and gas drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, handing President Bush a key defeat and putting in doubt the future of comprehensive energy legislation.

In the closely watched roll call, pro-exploration forces fell well short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a Democratic-led filibuster against the drilling plan. Only 46 senators voted to end the debate, while 54 opposed the motion.

Drilling advocates had hoped to win at least 50 votes. Their failure to achieve that goal increased already steep odds against the proposal being part of any final energy bill.

Still, neither side in the dispute thought the vote would end the decades-long debate on whether to open a portion of the 19-million-acre refuge in Alaska's northeast corner to drilling.

Foes of the drilling say it would endanger one of the nation's most precious wildlife habitats, and they exulted in their victory.

"Development would irreversibly damage this natural resource," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), a leader of the filibuster.

Supporters say environmentalists exaggerate the effect the drilling would have on the tundra and decried their defeat as a blow to America's need to decrease its dependence on foreign oil.

"Domestic oil production . . . is critical to our national and economic security," said Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho). "It is unfortunate that the politics of the issue overtook the real facts associated with America's energy needs."

Republicans vowed to take the issue to the campaign trail in their fight to regain a Senate majority that would be more receptive to the drilling proposal.

Bush included the proposal as a central component of the energy plan his administration unveiled almost a year ago. After Thursday's vote, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the Senate "missed an opportunity to lead America to greater energy independence."

Fleischer said Bush, who has been increasing his political appearances as the 2002 campaign season heats up, would continue to push for the drilling plan.

But experts said its defeat underscores the limits of Bush's ability to press his domestic agenda, even while enjoying strong public support for his leadership in the war on terrorism.

"The vote shows that the president does not have legislative coattails," said Marshall Wittmann, a political scholar at the conservative Hudson Institute think tank. "Those high presidential numbers in polls don't translate into votes on Capitol Hill."

Eight Republicans joined independent James M. Jeffords of Vermont and 45 Democrats--including Californians Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein--in voting to block the drilling. Five Democrats teamed with 41 Republicans to support it. The division mirrored the complexities of the energy debate in which issues cut across party lines, often pitting regional interests against partisan loyalties.

Bush has made reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil one of his domestic priorities, and it was unclear whether he would sign an energy bill that does not include the Alaskan drilling initiative.

The proposal was included in the energy bill passed by the GOP-controlled House last year.

The drilling debate is sure to be revived in House-Senate negotiations over a final bill. But Craig, a GOP leader on energy policy, conceded that Thursday's vote showed it would be "mighty tough" to win Senate approval for a compromise bill that includes the drilling.

And it remains uncertain whether Congress will even be able to produce compromise legislation, given that both sides in the debate have now suffered key losses. Earlier this year, a Democratic-led push for tougher vehicle fuel-economy standards, a priority of environmentalists, was derailed in the Senate.

Support for the bill is ebbing for other reasons. Feinstein, for example, has said she will vote against the measure as long as it requires that ethanol, a form of alcohol made from corn and other crops, be added to gasoline supplies as a way to make the fuel cleaner. Midwestern lawmakers are adamant that energy legislation include the ethanol requirement.

But California officials are worried that the provision would lead to a second energy crisis in the state because of logistic hurdles in bringing hundreds of millions of gallons of ethanol from the Midwest to California.

"There really is nothing in [the energy bill] that is an incentive for me to vote for," Feinstein said.

Still, many senators from both parties said they continue to support the bill, which includes billions of dollars in tax incentives to promote energy production and various conservation measures that have not proved controversial.

"Clearly, there is enough there to take it to conference and try to get something on the president's desk," Craig said.

A final Senate vote on an energy bill is expected within the next few days.

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