By LIZ RUSKIN
Anchorage Daily News
March 17, 2006
"We recognize that this is just the first step, but you've got to get through the first step so you can move it down the road," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.
The vote Thursday evening was 51-49. It came without the emotional debate and poster-sized wildlife photos that have come to characterize the fight over the coastal plain in Alaska's far northeast. An expected Democratic amendment to strip ANWR drilling from the bill never materialized, and ANWR got hardly a mention on the Senate floor.
It wasn't for lack of caring. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who led the anti-drilling battle last year, decided to try another tactic this time
"What it came down to was an overall assessment today that if we offered the amendment we would have lost again and that we should try to get the overall bill killed," said Cantwell's spokeswoman, Charla Neuman.
It didn't work.
Murkowski said two amendments helped win the bill's passage. One provides $10 billion for Gulf Coast restoration. That was especially important to Louisiana's senators, and Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., crossed party lines to vote for the budget. Another provides $3.3 billion for low-income heating assistance. That seemed to satisfy Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who usually votes against ANWR drilling but voted yes Thursday.
What to do with the Arctic refuge is one of the nation's highest profile environmental battles. Americans don't usually see it as a government budget battle. But drilling advocates, as they did last year, are trying to pass ANWR as a budget item because budget bills can't be filibustered. As Thursday's vote proved, they had just enough votes to pass the bill, but not the 60 it would take to break a filibuster.
The budget resolution doesn't actually discuss the refuge. It directs the Senate Energy Committee to change whatever resource-related laws must be changed to raise $3 billion, and everyone knows that's congressional code for ANWR revenues. Congress has to pass another bill, called the budget reconciliation bill, to actually open the refuge.
Last year, the Senate passed ANWR exploration in its budget bill, but in the final days of the 2005 session the House choked on it. House Democrats were united against the bill, largely because of its cuts to student loans and programs for the poor. A group of moderate Republicans refused to let it pass unless ANWR was removed.
The same thing could happen this year. Then again, maybe not.
Two dozen House Republicans have asked their leaders to keep ANWR out of the budget. But this year the budget bill is not going to have the big cuts to entitlement programs that were so unpopular with the Democrats last year. About 30 House Democrats favor Arctic drilling, and some of them might be persuaded to vote for a Republican budget that includes ANWR.
On the other hand, it's an election year, and lawmakers tend not to take controversial stands in an election year.
Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said she was disappointed with Thursday's vote and dismayed to see the same attempt on ANWR, year after year. There are so many other energy issues to work on, she said.
"The Alaska senators are obsessed. They're obsessed with drilling in the refuge. It's kind of sad," she said. "But we'll fight them again, and we'll win again."
Murkowski suggested a way to end the annual ANWR debate: Pass it.
"Yes, I think people are getting ANWR fatigue," she told reporters Thursday night. "Those of us in Alaska are saying, 'Enough already. Can't you guys make this happen?' "
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com
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