WASHINGTON - With a budget-cutting measure stymied by stiff resistance to opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, Congressional Republicans began exploring Wednesday a new tactic to win approval of both $45 billion in cuts and the drilling plan.
Lawmakers and senior aides said they were seriously considering tacking the drilling proposal onto a Pentagon spending bill that is among those that must pass before Congress heads home in the next few days. The switch, they said, could clear the way for approval of the spending cuts sought by conservatives and the Arctic drilling plan that is a priority of Republicans and the Bush administration, provided they could defeat any filibuster.
"It's going to be on one bill or the other before I go home," said Senator Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska, a leading proponent of opening the Arctic plain to oil production.
As lawmakers grew more anxious about recessing for the Christmas holidays, Republican moderates in the House said they believed that the push for enacting the spending cuts by the end of the year was losing momentum and that the leadership was ready to postpone action until early next year.
"They are still scrambling," said Representative Sherwood Boehlert of New York, one of the Republicans who say they will not support the budget measure if the Arctic drilling plan is included. "They don't have it yet."
Any delay was going to run afoul of conservatives in the House and Senate who have latched on to the cuts as a way to demonstrate a renewed dedication to reducing federal spending. "Our members want to see this White House and this leadership work as hard on fiscal discipline as we have worked on expanding government," said Representative Mike Pence, Republican of Indiana, the chairman of a group of House conservatives.
In another year-end spending fight, the House voted 215 to 213 on Wednesday to approve a slightly modified version of a $142.5 billion health and education spending measure rejected a few weeks ago. The measure reduced spending on programs covered under the legislation by more than $160 million from last year and was the first cut in education spending in a decade. In an effort to win approval, its authors funneled more money to rural health care.
Democrats in the House and Senate denounced the measure as badly flawed, saying it illustrated the Republican approach of cutting programs for the needy while embracing tax cuts that benefit more affluent Americans.
Representative David R. Obey of Wisconsin, the senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said the vote was just the latest in a series of Republican decisions in recent weeks to reduce spending on Medicaid, food stamps, student loans and child-support enforcement.
"This Congress will be taking away $48 billion from those who need it most in order to provide tax cuts, 50 percent of which will go to the top 1 percent - those who need it the least," Mr. Obey said.
Republicans said the spending measure was both fiscally responsible and generous in many respects, enhancing programs like special education. "This is a lot of money - $142.5 billion," said Representative Ralph Regula, Republican of Ohio, the chairman of the subcommittee that produced the measure.
As lawmakers clashed over spending, the Emergency Campaign for America's Priorities, a group opposing the budget cuts, said more than 100 people had been arrested by the Capitol police for staging a sit-in at a House office building to protest the spending cuts for social programs.
Despite differences over health care policy and other aspects of the budget plan that would reduce spending by about $45 billion through a combination of cuts and revenue increases, the Arctic drilling push has been the chief impediment.
About 20 House Republicans have consistently said they would oppose it unless the oil plan was dropped, making it virtually impossible for the legislation to clear the House, since Democrats are united against it. Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader, said Wednesday that no Democrat had indicated any intention to break ranks, despite appeals from Republican leaders.
But Mr. Stevens and Senator Pete V. Domenici, the New Mexico Republican who is chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, have refused to abandon the drilling plan, which is as close to approval as it has ever been in two decades of debate. The idea of adding it to the Pentagon measure took on new urgency after House leaders suggested it might be the only way to win approval of both the budget cuts and the drilling initiative.
The military spending measure, already tied up in another dispute over treatment of terror detainees, is likely to be one of the final bills passed this year and could also contain aid for the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast as well as money for avian flu preparation, making it a difficult bill to resist.
Senate aides said they were trying to determine whether attaching the drilling provision to the Pentagon measure would prompt a filibuster and whether they could round up the 60 votes to break one. The budget measure had been the first choice of the drilling advocates, since it is exempt from filibuster under Senate rules.
Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the majority leader, said he was willing to pursue any option to win approval of Arctic drilling. "I support opening ANWR to energy production to help increase our energy independence and protect our nation from terrorists taking our energy supplies hostage, and want to move it through the House and Senate however I can," Mr. Frist said in a statement.
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company