WASHINGTON - After decades of trying to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil exploration, backers of drilling said Friday that they were closer than ever now that Congress had adopted a budget.
The $2.56 trillion federal budget for 2006, adopted late Thursday night by the House and Senate, includes a provision that Congress can open the refuge by enacting a particular kind of legislation, called "a reconciliation," that is not vulnerable to Senate filibusters, which have been used to kill such drilling measures in the past.
Majorities in both chambers have already voiced support of Arctic drilling this year. The House approved broad energy legislation last week that includes a drilling provision. In the Senate, lawmakers voted narrowly in favor of drilling last month, when the issue came up in connection with the budget.
"A majority in the Senate support it and a majority in the House support it," Representative Richard W. Pombo, Republican of California and the chairman of the House Resources Committee, said on Friday. "So I think it's going to happen, after 25 years of fighting over it."
But Senator Maria Cantwell, the Washington Democrat who has been a strong opponent of drilling, said the budget did not make oil exploration in the refuge "an inevitability," especially given the close votes on the budget itself in both chambers.
"I don't think that the reconciliation is a slam-dunk," Ms. Cantwell said.
President Bush has made drilling in the refuge a central component of his energy policy, and he raised the issue again on Thursday night in his televised news conference. But with oil prices soaring and polls showing public disaffection with the way the White House is handling the issue, Ms. Cantwell said, she hoped the national debate would turn away from drilling in the wildlife refuge and toward "solutions that will matter instead of long-touted political issues."
The fight over drilling in the refuge has been raging for decades and has been before Congress since at least 1980, when President Jimmy Carter, in a compromise with environmentalists, signed legislation that both expanded the Arctic refuge to 19 million acres and allowed a small slice of it to be opened to oil exploration, subject to Congressional approval. In 1995, Congress gave that approval, but President Bill Clinton vetoed the measure.
The budget that Congress passed on Thursday night directs House and Senate committees, including the one led by Mr. Pombo, to reduce energy spending by $2.4 billion over the five years - an amount that is identical to the federal government's share of oil revenues projected from the refuge. The reconciliation bill carrying out that instruction must be written by September.
Proponents of drilling, who include Alaskan development interests and the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group representing oil companies, say drilling would reduce dependence on foreign oil and lower soaring oil prices. Opponents, who include environmentalists and the Gwich'in Nation, indigenous people of the North Slope of Alaska, contend the drilling will destroy an unspoiled region that is a breeding ground for caribou and other wildlife.
"Gwich'in way of life, our right to life, is inextricably tied to the calving grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge," Luci Beach, the executive director of the Gwich'in Steering Committee, said in a statement issued on Friday. "When will you listen? When will you understand what this destruction will lead to, for all of us; for you, for Gwich'in, for all Americans?"
In Washington, the two sides of the debate geared for the next round.
"If you look at the dynamics of the makeup of the Senate and the House, it would seem that the chances should never be better," said Jerry Hood, an official of Arctic Power, a group based in Alaska that supports drilling.
Still, Mr. Hood said, "any one of a number of things could derail the whole process and leave us stranded."
Athan Manuel, an official of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, which opposes drilling, said his organization intended to lean on Republican moderates to fight the reconciliation measure.
At least seven of those moderates, led by Representative Nancy L. Johnson, Republican of Connecticut, were among 15 Republicans who voted against the budget on Thursday night because of objections to the Arctic drilling. The close vote on final passage of the budget, 214 to 211 in the House, gives drilling opponents some cause for hope, Mr. Manuel said.
"We did scare Hastert and DeLay by making it that close," he said, referring to the House speaker, Representative J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, and the Republican leader, Representative Tom DeLay of Texas.
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