WASHINGTON — President Bush encountered an unexpected roadblock Friday in his effort to open part of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration -- six Republican senators.
The senators objected to a possible effort by fellow Republicans to use a parliamentary device to advance the measure. They urged their leaders to resist any effort to attach the drilling measure to a budget bill, a strategy designed to overcome a threatened filibuster by Democrats who oppose the drilling proposal.
The plea shows that even with Republicans in control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, parts of the president's legislative agenda will face a tough time in Congress.
It also was further evidence that many issues -- in this case matters of energy and the environment -- can be determined more by parochial interests than by party loyalty.
In a narrowly divided Senate, the six antidrilling Republicans would seem to leave Bush short of the votes he needs to win approval of the drilling. However, several Democrats -- including some representing oil- and gas-producing states -- have supported the drilling.
Bush has made opening part of the 19-million-acre refuge to oil and gas exploration a centerpiece of his energy plan to reduce the United States' dependence on foreign oil.
Environmentalists contend drilling would spoil one of the nation's great wildernesses and endanger wildlife, while making a negligible dent in oil imports.
In a letter to Republican leaders, Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois and Mike DeWine of Ohio said the drilling proposal has serious environmental ramifications and should be considered apart from the budget bill.
"We believe that the Arctic refuge should be preserved and that the budgetary effects of oil leases in the refuge are incidental when considering the profound negative impact of drilling in the Arctic refuge," the senators wrote. "The budget is not conducive to adequate consideration of an issue of this magnitude."
Their letter was made public on the same day the Wilderness Society released a poll showing that voters, by a 2-1 margin, oppose Arctic drilling, even in the face of possible war with Iraq -- and, presumably, threats to oil supplies.
A spokesman for Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton said whether Arctic drilling is made a part of a budget bill or an energy bill, "The department believes we can provide energy security for America and protect the environment at the same time."
Spokesman Mark Pfeifle contended the Wilderness Society poll was skewed, calling the survey results as "reliable as the figures in Joe Millionaire's bank account."
The unresolved question is whether drilling will be attached to a budget measure.
If that happens, the proposal could be approved with 50 votes, with Vice President Dick Cheney breaking a tie, and pro-drilling Democrats could offset the renegade Republicans. A budget bill is not subject to a filibuster. Sixty votes are required to overcome a filibuster.
Republican leaders have yet to decide whether to attach the drilling measure to a budget bill, expressing concern that it could jeopardize Bush's economic stimulus plan, which is also expected to be part of the budget measure.
Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, floated the idea of attaching the drilling measure to the budget bill, as the Republican-controlled Congress did in 1995. The measure was vetoed by President Clinton.
Republicans defend use of the budget bill, saying drilling would generate billions of dollars in revenues.
The Republican-controlled House last year approved Arctic drilling as part of an energy bill, but the proposal received only 46 votes in the Senate. Since then, 11 Senate seats have changed hands, and the chamber is under GOP control.
The government estimates there are 6 billion to 16 billion barrels of oil beneath the tundra. Opponents argue that about 3.2 billion barrels can be recovered economically.