WASHINGTON – Senate Democrats are maneuvering for a quick vote on oil drilling in an Arctic wildlife refuge, confident they can turn back one of the Bush administration's top energy priorities.
A proposal to allow oil companies to develop the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska was introduced Tuesday by Alaska's two Republican senators.
A group of Democrats immediately made clear they intend to filibuster the amendment. With Republicans believed to be short of the 60 votes needed to end it, Democrats moved to force a vote on the filibuster by Thursday.
Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, accused the Democrats of steamrolling the bill, noting that the Democratic maneuver to force a vote came "after only three hours of debate."
Administration officials acknowledged Tuesday they have been unable to peel away additional support among anti-drilling senators. The White House this week explored the possibility of avoiding a floor vote in fear of losing badly.
A poor showing could hurt in negotiations with the House, which approved an ANWR drilling measure as part of its energy bill last summer.
Murkowski and Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, insisted that the Senate had to confront Arctic drilling as part of the broader energy bill that is close to completion.
Trying to gain additional support, Stevens offered a proposal Tuesday to funnel more than $8.1 billion from expected oil lease sales in the refuge to programs that would help the ailing steel industry, steelworkers and coal miners.
Democrats called the move an act of desperation, and even Stevens said some might view it as crass. "That's right, we're looking for votes," said Stevens. He added, however, that the allocation would help steelworkers facing hard economic times in an industry in decline.
The proposal fell flat.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., whose state has thousands of steelworkers and coal miners, rejected the idea, giving political cover to other Democrats.
As debate opened, Murkowski and other pro-drilling senators hoped recent turmoil in the Middle East and rumblings from Iraq about cutting off oil shipments might sway some senators to their side.
It's better to open the refuge to drilling "rather than rely on the likes of Saddam Hussein," Murkowski said.
Iraqi President Saddam's government announced last week that it was stopping its oil exports for 30 days or until Israeli troops have withdrawn from Palestinian territories.
Stevens argued that the push to block ANWR development was the work of "environmental extremists" who ignore the tens of thousands of jobs that the drilling would create.
"We're here because an elite few have decided that Alaska should be their playground," complained Stevens.
President Bush, who has made access to ANWR's oil a central part of his energy strategy, argues that the oil can be developed without harm to the environment. Geologist believe there is a good chance the refuge's coastal plain, just east of the Prudhoe Bay oil field, could have as much as 11.5 billion barrels of crude.
But environmentalists have insisted that developing the oil, even under restrictions proposed by Murkowski, would harm the plain's wildlife, including caribou, that use the flat tundra for calving each summer. They also argue there's plenty of oil in other parts of the Alaskan North Slope that remain underdeveloped.