By LIZ RUSKIN AND ROB HOTAKAINEN
December 23, 2005
"Between the extreme environmentalists and the press, I've become the demagogue of America, so you can't hurt my feelings anymore," he told reporters. "I don't have any feelings anymore."
Turns out he does.
When the Senate on Wednesday rejected his plan to open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, the 82-year-old senator, undoubtedly one of the nation's most powerful, called it "the saddest day of my life." But he fumed at those who had voted against him: "I'm going to go to every one of your states, and I'm going to tell them what you've done!"
As an exhausted Congress began leaving Washington on Thursday, closing the doors on its 2005 session, Stevens had emerged as the man of the hour on Capitol Hill, and no one doubted that the fight over ANWR would soon return for one simple reason: Stevens will never let it die.
"I'm about down to my 22nd year here, and we've been fighting this issue every year we've been here," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., a drilling opponent. "I expect to see it again next year."
The eternal battle over ANWR stems from a 25-year-old federal law that protected vast areas of Alaska. The 1980 Alaska lands act was so expansive that it doubled the size of the country's national park system and tripled the amount of land designated as wilderness.
But Congress couldn't decide what to do with the far northeastern corner of the state, the coastal plain of the Arctic refuge, which was believed to be an excellent oil prospect but also important to caribou and other wildlife. Alaska's senators wanted it available for oil development and Democratic leaders wanted it protected as wilderness.
In the end, they compromised. The 1980 law says the land would be studied and a future Congress would decide what to do with it. So Stevens keeps trying.
He often says that he actually won the fight back in 1980. The two Democrats in charge of the bill, Sens. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts and Henry "Scoop" Jackson of Washington, promised to allow oil drilling on the coastal plain, Stevens insists. It burns him that some of the strongest opposition to drilling ANWR now comes from the senators from those states.
"These people are filibustering fulfilling the commitment of Senator Tsongas and Senator Jackson," Stevens complained this week. "Those two gentlemen left us prematurely and, as a consequence, we have fought now for 25 years to fulfill that commitment."
But if Stevens did win that promise from the senators, he didn't win it in law.
Jackson "would roll over in his grave" if he knew what Stevens was attempting, suggested Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.
"Did you ever ask yourself why he didn't just authorize it to begin with?" she countered. "I think he knew exactly what he was doing. He wanted further review."
Environmentalists are calling Stevens a bully for never giving up. He outraged many Democrats and a few Republicans this month by hitching ANWR to a must-pass bill with $453 billion for the Defense Department.
When the Senate began balking over ANWR, Stevens threatened to keep the Senate in session until New Year's. He said he'd already canceled his plans to go home for Christmas.
On Wednesday night, a bitter Stevens told his fellow senators that they were also rejecting ANWR revenues and that the bill had dedicated them to good causes. He described mountains of cash they were passing up: $3.1 billion for border security, $2 billion to help poor families pay their energy bills, $1 billion for farmers and ranchers. Most of all, he said, the hurricane-damaged Gulf Coast states would lose out, he said, because a major portion of ANWR revenues were to go into a gulf recovery fund. Stevens accused ANWR opponents of not knowing what was in the bill, and he pledged that he wouldn't let their constituents forget.
With 37 years of experience, Stevens is the most senior Republican senator and president pro tempore of the Senate. It's a largely ceremonial post, but it puts him third in line for the presidency, after the vice president and the House speaker.
He was chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee for six years. He remains a member and is also chairman of its defense subcommittee. He is known for funneling huge sums of federal money to Alaska, so much that Alaska economists speak of a "Stevens effect."
He was widely ridiculed this fall for threatening to resign if the Senate took away the $452 million earmarked for Alaska's two "bridges to nowhere," although those were actually the pet projects of the state's lone House member, Rep. Don Young, chairman of the Transportation Committee.
Stevens got emotional on the Senate floor Wednesday.
He told senators that he had always tried to give his help when they asked for it. But he said he was "drawing a line now with a lot of people I've worked with before."
"I really am. I really am," he said, his voice wavering.
After the final vote, Stevens said he was going to think about what to do next year.
"I say goodbye to the Senate tonight," he said. "Thank you very much."
Some observers were startled, wondering if he was saying he was resigning. An aide said she thought he was just saying he was tired and going home.
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