In a late Wednesday vote, the House approved oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska as part of a package of energy proposals expected to be sent to the Senate later Wednesday night.
The 510-page bill includes a call for drilling in ANWR's 1.5-million-acre coastal plain. The refuge, created 41 years ago by President Eisenhower, is frequented by millions of migrating birds, caribou and other wildlife.
The refuge "was supposed to be drilled, explored for the American people," declared Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska. He chided some of the drilling opponents, many of whom, he said, had never been to the refuge in the far corner of northeastern Alaska.
An attempt remove the item failed 223-206.
"This bill is a giant step forward in securing America's energy future," said Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La.
Senate Democrats have said in the past that any attempt to open ANWR to drilling will be blocked. The Senate planned to take up energy proposals in the fall.
In addition to the Arctic drilling, the House bill would provide $33.5 billion in energy tax breaks and credits, most of it to promote coal, oil, nuclear and natural gas development, but also about $6 billion aimed at spurring energy conservation. The White House called the bill a proper balance between energy development and conservation.
It was the first time in 21 years that the House has taken up the Arctic drilling issue. In 1980, Congress declared that the coastal plain within the refuge potentially could be tapped for its oil resources, but not without a green light from Congress.
Not included in the bill were more stringent fuel efficiency standards for large vehicles, a idea pushed by environmentalists as a cost-effective way to reduce fuel consumption. Opponents say more stringent standards would lead to smaller vehicles that are less safe in crashes.
Critics of the ANWR provision say the bill offered no immediate relief and came at the expense of nature.
"This is no ordinary land," shot back Rep. David Bonier, D-Mich., who said he had been there. "It's a cathedral of nature, an American heritage. And it's our responsibility to protect it."
The question is whether the nation will honor its heritage "or will the big oil companies win," continued Bonier. Oil companies long have coveted the refuge which geologists believe contains between 5 billion and 16 billion barrels of oil, an amount that could be comparable to the Prudhoe oil fields next door.
Democrats said the House bill was tilted too heavily toward energy companies, pointing to more than $33.5 billion in tax benefits over the next decade. They said $8 of every $10 would go to coal, oil, nuclear and other energy industries.
The revenue drain could force Congress to dip into Medicare or Social Security trust funds, Democrats charged. The bill's GOP supporters disagreed.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.