WASHINGTON -- After years of watching Democrats block President Bush's plan to allow oil drilling in an Alaskan wildlife refuge, Senate Republicans say they are planning a legislative maneuver to push it through that would avoid the threat of filibusters, which have killed the measure in the past.
The maneuver, which senators and Congressional aides said would be made public Wednesday as part of the Senate budget resolution, would open the door to drilling with a simple majority of 51 votes, instead of the 60 required to block a filibuster. The same move failed two years ago, but with 55 Republican senators - four more than before - proponents of the drilling say they have fresh hope that Congress will vote this year to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a central component of Mr. Bush's energy policy.
"The people who are for this, ANWR, have to have 51 votes," said Senator Pete V. Domenici, the New Mexico Republican and champion of the drilling provision, using the acronym (pronounced AN-war) for the refuge. "The people who are against it can take it out with 51 votes. All we're saying is, that seems pretty American, pretty fair."
The move will reopen one of the most contentious and long-running energy debates in Washington at a time when the Senate, under a newly strengthened Republican majority, is pushing through a variety of bills that opponents say benefit big business. A measure that changes the way the courts handle class-action lawsuits has already passed, and a second bill that would make it more difficult for consumers to use bankruptcy to escape paying debts appears headed for passage this week.
The debate over drilling centers on 1.5 million acres of coastal plain, part of the larger 19-million-acre Arctic refuge. Proponents of drilling, including Alaskan development interests and the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group representing oil companies, say drilling would reduce dependency on foreign oil. And the oil industry estimates that drilling would be confined to 2,000 acres. Opponents say drilling would threaten caribou and destroy one of the last unspoiled habitats in the United States.
Both sides agree that the measure's chances seem improved this year. "We're hopeful," said Betty Anthony, an official with the petroleum institute.
Michael Musante, a spokesman for Arctic Power, a pro-drilling group financed by the State of Alaska, said that if this Congress did not pass the measure, "it will never happen."
Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who made opposition to drilling a theme of his presidential campaign, acknowledged that the vote would be close. "It underscores the weakness of their position that they have to try to slide it into the budget bill, make an end run around the process," Mr. Kerry said.
The Senate Budget Committee is expected to vote Thursday on the budget resolution, and the full Senate could take it up as early as Monday. Aside from the debate over oil drilling, the budget is expected to prompt a fight over reductions in Medicaid spending and tax cuts. Mr. Bush has asked Congress to approve $100 billion in tax cuts over the next five years, but the Senate budget panel is proposing $70 billion in cuts.
The budget debate will not be the end of the drilling fight. If the measure passes the full Senate with drilling-related provisions, the Senate will still have to pass a second measure, a "reconciliation bill" that would explicitly authorize opening the Arctic refuge. That bill would require only a simple majority to pass.
In recent weeks, both sides have been girding for battle. Former President Jimmy Carter, who in 1980 signed the law setting aside Alaskan lands as a wildlife refuge, has weighed in, telephoning at least two Democratic senators who support drilling to urge them to vote against it. One, Senator Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, said she was "very honored" that Mr. Carter called but had not decided how she would vote.
Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, have been running radio and television advertisements singling out crucial senators, including Senator Judd Gregg, the New Hampshire Republican who is chairman of the Budget Committee.
On Wednesday, a leading Democratic opponent of drilling, Senator Barbara Boxer of California, is planning a news conference with Alaska Natives and a filmmaker whose documentary about the Arctic refuge, "Oil on Ice," is being shown on university campuses around the country. U.S. Public Interest Research Group, an advocacy organization opposed to drilling, is mailing 600 copies of the film to members who will have private screenings in their houses.
But proponents of drilling, including Alaska's two senators, Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski, both Republicans, are rallying as well. At a lunch with Republican senators on Tuesday, they circulated a letter from a former Senate colleague, James L. Buckley, the New York Republican who two decades ago said he opposed drilling but said he had changed his mind.
And just last weekend, five Republican senators, including Ms. Murkowski and Mr. Domenici, toured the wildlife refuge with a delegation that included two cabinet officials, Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton and Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman. There, they viewed modern equipment that advocates of opening the refuge say would make drilling less intrusive.
The drilling fight does not break cleanly along party lines. When the issue last came before Congress, in 2003, eight Republicans voted against drilling; seven of those remain in the Senate.
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