WASHINGTON - Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland is a prime target of a last-ditch bid to win Senate approval for oil drilling in the Alaska wildlife refuge, with supporters offering in return to help pay health care costs of steel-industry retirees.
Supporters hope to secure the backing of a half-dozen or so steel-state Democrats, including Mikulski, before the Senate votes on the highly contentious proposal to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The vote is expected late next week.
The senator said yesterday that she is uncomfortable with the notion of linking the drilling plan - which critics say would threaten the environment - with help for the ailing steel industry. But she did not rule out her support for such a deal.
"I have always been troubled by the proposal to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge," Mikulski said. "And I support a federal commitment to maintain the health care and pensions for America's steelworkers. There is not - and should not be - any connection between the two."
Supporters of the drilling proposal are trying to attach it to a broad energy bill in the Senate. The House has passed an energy bill - one that includes the Alaska drilling plan.
But advocates on both sides of the issue said they believe that the drilling proposal is far short of the 60 votes needed to break a Senate filibuster and that the potential steel accord was unlikely to make up the difference. Even so, Mikulski's refusal to rule out the deal is a sign of its powerful allure.
Steel industry executives and workers are lobbying Congress for help with a $12 billion tab to pay health care costs for retired workers - sometimes called legacy costs - that the shrunken companies can no longer afford. Bethlehem Steel, which employs 3,500 workers in Baltimore County, is paying the health care costs of 130,000 current and retired employees and their dependents.
Sens. Frank H. Murkowski and Ted Stevens, Alaska Republicans and the leading Senate advocates of drilling, are negotiating with Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, a West Virginia Democrat, on the deal. It would provide short-term help with health care costs and a long-term boost for the steel industry through contracts to build a natural-gas pipeline.
"The objective is the rejuvenation of our steel industry in the United States," Murkowski said yesterday. "The proposed gas line from Alaska would be a 3,000-mile line. The order is worth about $5 billion.
"When we built the 800-mile trans-Alaska oil pipeline, our steel industry did not participate. That steel came from Japan, Korea and Italy. I would hope in this process that America's steel industry would rise to the opportunity that might be available and get going again and create these jobs."
Rockefeller, who has been the leading advocate for federal help with the legacy costs, said the offer from the Alaska senators is too tempting to ignore - especially if it means that President Bush might be persuaded to support the steel package.
"As someone who has been fighting for West Virginia steelworkers for over 20 years, I have an absolute and moral obligation to consider this proposal," Rockefeller said. "The stakes are enormously high: the jobs of thousands of steelworkers, the health benefits for hundreds of thousands of retirees, the livelihood of 25,000 people in the Ohio Valley and 14 percent of West Virginia's manufacturing base."
Neither administration officials nor Senate Republican aides would say yesterday whether the White House is prepared to accept the steel agreement under discussion.
The environmental lobby, though, made its opposition clear. "The Sierra Club agrees with Senator Mikulski that the funds for steel pensioners should not come at the expense of pillaging Alaska's wildlife refuge," said Dan Becker, a spokesman. "We also think Marylanders understand that linking the two would be a sleazy deal."
Mikulski is considered a potential swing vote because, though usually an ally of environmentalists, she voted against their cause last month on a plan to boost fuel efficiency standards on SUVs. She said then that she was hoping to help save jobs at General Motors Corp.'s van assembly plant in Southeast Baltimore.
But even senators who have consistently voted with environmentalists on Alaska drilling and other issues, including Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Minnesota Democrat, are reluctant to reject the steel bailout offer.
"He thinks it's a mean-spirited idea," said Allison Dobson, a spokeswoman for Wellstone. "That's as far as I'll go."
Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat who has also been a reliable vote for environmentalist causes, had not been contacted about the steel trade-off, a spokesman said. Supporters of drilling said they did not consider Sarbanes a target for their efforts.
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