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Bush officials trying to win back GOP moderates on Arctic drilling
San Francisco Chronicle


December 13, 2005

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration, fearing its best chance in decades of allowing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is fading away, is waging a last-minute campaign to change the minds of moderate House Republicans who oppose opening the oil-rich area to development.

But two dozen House GOP moderates who pledged last month to vote against any budget bill that approved drilling in the Alaskan refuge insist they won't bow to pressure from the White House or offers of money for pet projects.

"They have all said they won't change their minds," said Ron Talley, a spokesman for the Republican Main Street Partnership, the group of moderates who led the opposition to drilling in the refuge. "It's a matter of survival for our folks. They have to vote their constituency. If they go back to their districts next year and they are not re-elected, that means (House Speaker) Dennis Hastert comes back to Washington as a ranking member only."




The fate of the Alaskan refuge - which has been fought over by environmentalists and drilling supporters for more than 30 years - is expected to be decided this week as Congress finishes its work before the holiday recess.

A measure to drill in the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain of the refuge is included in the Senate budget reconciliation bill, but not the House's $50 billion budget-cutting package. GOP leaders are struggling to merge the two versions, which include deep cuts in programs such as Medicaid and food stamps, into a final bill.

The White House stepped up the pressure on House Republicans Monday by staging a press conference with Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, who argued the president's case for drilling in the refuge.

"We are very concerned about the job creation that is being denied through the non-movement or non-progress on this particular piece of legislation," Chao told reporters at the National Press Club.

Norton, the administration's leading proponent of drilling, said she hopes to convince lawmakers by reminding them that rising gas prices and home heating costs are taking a toll on their constituents.

"For many of those who have voted against (Arctic drilling) in the past who are in the New England region or the Great Lakes region, they are seeing more dramatic evidence today about the effects of high heating oil prices on the ability of people to heat their family's home - or in the Great Lakes region the effects of energy prices on manufacturing," Norton said. "The hope is that as people better understand that information, they take a second look."

Norton noted that GOP leaders in Congress also are offering sweeteners to lawmakers who are willing to switch their position - such as more money for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, a favorite program of lawmakers in the Northeast. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, also has talked about enticing Gulf Coast lawmakers to vote for the drilling with offers of more hurricane relief aid.

But moderate Republicans including Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del., Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., said at a press event last week they would not cut a deal involving the refuge, which is home to caribou, polar bears and other species.


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