WASHINGTON — Two years ago, after his decades-old crusade to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling had failed again, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) made a vow to his colleagues: He'd be back.
He made good on the pledge, and on Monday the drilling measure loomed as perhaps the most divisive issue facing Congress as it moved to adjourn for the year.
Stevens has attached the drilling measure to the military spending bill and has given his colleagues a tough choice -- accept it or hold up funding for an American military at war. It is not clear how the showdown will be resolved. But the dispute has provided a vivid demonstration of Washington power politics in its rawest form.
At center stage is an 82-year-old master of the art, who combines the guile of a seasoned infighter, the clout of seniority and the fiercest determination to impose his will on the system. In Congress, that's usually enough to win. But in this case, Stevens finds himself fighting formidable forces on multiple fronts -- environmental advocates, some fellow pro-military lawmakers and many members of Congress who are desperate to go home.
The defense bill -- with the drilling provision -- cleared the House early Monday. But hours later, environmentalists and their Senate allies showed no signs of backing off a fight.
"I speak for Californians in saying, 'Don't do this, Sen. Stevens,' " Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said. "We know you're powerful.... We know you feel passionately. But we feel passionately too."
Opening the Arctic refuge to energy exploration has long been a goal of President Bush's. But it is among a handful of administration-backed measures facing an uncertain fate in the Senate.
A House-approved bill calling for $40 billion in spending cuts to programs such as Medicare and Medicaid faces resistance in the Senate from Democrats and some moderate Republicans. Extension of the Patriot Act has stalled in the Senate because of concern from some members of both parties about its effect on civil liberties; the anti-terrorism law will expire at the end of the year without congressional action.
But Stevens grabbed the limelight with his maneuvering to advance his favorite initiative, a testament to his determination on the issue.
"He strikes me as a good person to have on your side," said Robert L. Bixby of the Concord Coalition, a budget watchdog group. "Too bad he isn't a budget hawk. I would love to unleash his combination of cunning, tenacity and zeal on the deficit."
Stevens, speaking on the Senate floor Monday, argued passionately that it was fair to attach the drilling measure to the defense bill.
"Oil is related to national security," he said.
Responding to Democratic charges that he has abused the Senate rules, he said, "We're not changing the rules at all.... I've been around here 37 years, and I know the rules."
He also crafted the legislation in such a way as to try to win the votes of senators who had previously opposed the drilling -- packing the military spending bill with hurricane relief and home-heating subsidies eagerly sought by a number of lawmakers.
Still, he said he was not sure he had the 60 votes to overcome a filibuster -- the procedural tactic that has blocked drilling in the past.
"Am I confident? No. I'm never confident about other people's votes," he said.
In a tribute to Stevens' skills, Melinda Pierce, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, said his legislative gambits "certainly keep me on my toes."
But she predicted his latest ploy would backfire. "Everyone knows who's the real Grinch here.... Sen. Stevens is holding this popular defense funding bill hostage until he gets the Congress to give in on his pet project."
Stevens, a former chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is legendary for securing money and other federal help for Alaska. The current edition of the Almanac of American Politics said of him: "Probably more than any other senator, Stevens has shaped the public institutions and private economy of his state -- and he doesn't seem finished yet."
Indeed, opening the wildlife refuge to oil exploration has become a virtual crusade for him.
Stevens, who first took his Senate seat in 1968, has pushed for the drilling proposal for more than two decades. In 2003, before the measure fell short of the needed votes, he made clear how important it was to him.
"I have never broken a commitment in my life," he told his colleagues. "I make this commitment: People who vote against this today are voting against me, and I will never forget it."
Over the years, he has criticized "extreme environmental organizations" for spreading "propaganda of the worst" kind about the proposed effects of drilling. He has called the proposed drilling site a "barren wasteland" in the winter, when drilling would occur -- "no trees, no beauty at all."
Opponents contend that the amount of oil produced by the drilling would barely make a dent in U.S. reliance on imports while damaging a national environmental treasure.