WASHINGTON — With a showdown vote as early as today, President Bush appears closer than ever to achieving a goal at the core of his efforts to increase the nation's energy production: opening an Alaskan wildlife refuge to drilling for oil and natural gas.
Senate filibusters have blocked Bush's proposal in the past. But last year, four pro-drilling Republicans were elected, replacing anti-drilling Democrats in the Senate. Now the chamber's GOP leaders say they are confident they have the votes to advance the measure, long one of Capitol Hill's most contentious environmental matters.
Drilling supporters also hope surges in gasoline prices will increase pressure on the Senate to approve energy exploration in a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"Oil is trading above $50 [a barrel], gas prices have risen 7% in the last month and American boots are on the ground in the Middle East," said Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
"Now is the time [to approve the drilling], and senators know that."
Since he first ran for president, Bush has made opening part of the 19-million-acre refuge in northeast Alaska to oil and gas exploration a centerpiece of his plan to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
The administration has said the drilling offers "the "single greatest prospect" for onshore oil and gas development anywhere in the United States; its passage would represent a major legislative triumph for Bush.
To make that happen, Senate Republicans are attaching the drilling measure to a budget bill that requires only a simple majority to pass. By contrast, overcoming a filibuster requires 60 votes.
Both sides in the fight were hesitant Monday to predict the outcome; both expect a close vote.
"I haven't purchased any champagne yet," said Jerry Hood, Washington lobbyist for the pro-drilling group Arctic Power.
Environmentalists were not ready to concede defeat.
"We're continuing to fight for every vote until the last vote is counted," said Peter Rafle, a spokesman for the Wilderness Society. "This thing is far from over."
But an aide to a moderate Republican senator who has opposed the drilling said Monday of the proponents: "I think they've got the votes."
The government has estimated that 6 billion to 16 billion barrels of oil lie beneath the tundra.
Environmentalists contend that drilling would spoil one of the nation's great wildernesses and endanger wildlife, while making a negligible dent in oil imports.
They say that far less oil can be recovered economically than the 7 billion barrels a year that Americans now use. And they say it would take years before any oil would reach the market.
Some Democrats have called for releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve -- the nation's emergency stockpile of petroleum, stored in underground salt caverns -- as a way to increase supply and cut prices. Bush has said he opposes that strategy.
"This debate is more than just about protecting one of America's last remaining natural treasures," said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who is pushing to strip the drilling language from the budget bill. "It is a question of ... what inheritance we leave our children."
Bush and others contend that technology has made it possible to extract the oil from the refuge without damaging the environment, an assertion opponents dispute.
When the drilling measure came before the Senate in 2003, pro-drilling forces mustered 48 votes for it -- 43 from Republicans, five from Democrats. Four Republicans elected to the Senate last November voiced support during their campaigns for the drilling -- Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Mel Martinez of Florida and John Thune of South Dakota.
Drilling opponents are trying to sway some who have supported drilling. For instance, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) voted for the drilling in 2003, but an aide said Monday that his boss had not stated his position on attaching the measure to the budget bill.
Lobbyists for environmental groups also have sought to broaden the debate beyond the drilling's effect in Alaska, warning about its implications for other regions.
Martinez, the freshman senator from Florida, has been the target of a television ad in his home state warning that opening the Arctic refuge to energy exploration could lead to drilling off the Florida coast.
But a spokesman for Martinez said he was still likely to support the Arctic drilling, adding that the senator was working with the administration "to address the concerns of Floridians that drilling in [Alaska] will not mean drilling off Florida's beaches is next."
Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) has been the target of a radio ad run by an environmental group in his state declaring that "protecting America's wilderness used to be something that everyone got behind -- Democrats and Republicans."
But a Hagel spokesman said the senator still supports the drilling.
Ads opposing the drilling also have run in the home states of Democratic Sens. Daniel K. Akaka of Hawaii and Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, both of whom supported Arctic drilling in 2003. Spokesmen for Landrieu and Akaka said their positions remained unchanged.
The anti-drilling forces are pressing their case that the measure has no place in a budget bill, decrying the procedural maneuver as a back-door tactic.
"The drilling lobby knows they can't sell off the Arctic refuge if they have an open, honest debate," said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), a leading opponent of the drilling.
Kerry said he believed opponents could still prevail "with a coalition of those who oppose drilling and those who just plain old reject the politics of back-door, rig-the-process scheming."