WASHINGTON – With the U.S. Senate poised to begin debate on an energy bill, a battle is brewing once again over a Bush administration proposal to drill in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Republicans are angry that Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., has evaded the committee process that they say would have brought an energy bill to the floor with a provision including ANWR.
Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said that if the committee had been allowed to vote on the bill, it would have supported the House-passed legislation, ANWR and all. The House bill passed last August on a 240-189 vote.
Instead, a scaled-back Democratic version that doesn't include drilling in ANWR will be debated on the Senate floor beginning as early as Wednesday.
Through Daschle's maneuvering, any chance to get an amendment passed on drilling in ANWR will now require Republicans to round up 60 votes.
"I think it's safe to say we have the votes on ANWR procedurally. I'm not too worried about that issue," Daschle said Tuesday.
The procedural move to prevent a 51-vote majority from passing a bill, frequently employed by Senate leadership, has Senate Republicans reeling.
"Had this gone through committee, ANWR would have been in it and the majority would have prevailed, but by bypassing the committee structure and requiring the 60 votes, you are taking away the majority rule," added Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas.
Asked if the 60 votes are there for ANWR, Hutchison said, "I do believe we have a majority." Pressed on whether Republicans have 60 votes, Hutchison said she wasn't sure.
Supporters of oil drilling in ANWR, including President Bush, argue that the industry has come up with environmentally-safe drilling techniques that will have very little impact on the surface area where drilling will occur. ANWR has a 1.5 million-acre coastal region, but a "footprint," or disrupted surface area would take up only 2,000-5,000 acres and could produce 500 million barrels of oil. By drilling on U.S. territory, the nation can reduce its dependence on foreign oil, Bush said as recently as last weekend.
But opponents argue that developing the oil field does nothing to reduce the nation's reliance on oil. They say drilling does irreparable damage to the natural habitat where caribou and other wildlife live, and if the U.S. found itself solely reliant on ANWR, the amount of oil it could produce would only provide a six-month supply.
Daschle said America should instead turn to conservation-based alternatives that make drilling unnecessary.
"If we just enact efficiency standards for fuel for automobiles that we have in our bill, we generate 15 times what is produced in ANWR. Fifteen times," Daschle said Tuesday.
To get 60 votes, Republicans will need to convince more than just the six moderate senators who have announced their opposition to drilling in ANWR. The Bush administration is said to be looking for ways to make the drilling proposal less objectionable to them, with the Department of Interior suggesting scaling back the acreage of ANWR.
On Tuesday, Murkowski said it's premature to say whether he could support compromise alternatives, but Daschle said that no "machination or alteration" to the proposal will help the ANWR amendment get passed.
Asked if he would pull the bill from the floor if ANWR passed, Daschle said he hadn't made a decision on that yet.
Fox News' Julie Asher contributed to this report.