WASHINGTON – The White House is easing away from insisting that Congress open an Alaska wildlife refuge to oil drilling (search) after the president was told by lawmakers the issue could doom energy legislation.
President Bush, after meeting with legislators involved in the energy talks, said Wednesday he wanted a bill "that will pass both bodies" - the House and Senate. He said the White House would work with those trying to resolve "contentious" issues such as drilling in the Alaska refuge.
To the lawmakers present, it was a clear signal that the White House is willing to accept energy legislation without a provision to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (search) to oil development, according to congressional sources close to the negotiations.
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said he and the other lawmakers made clear to the president "we're not going to let ANWR defeat a comprehensive energy bill (search)."
"We're going to have to determine whether inclusion of ANWR will kill this or not," Domenici said the president was told. "If it's going to kill it, it's not going to be in."
Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., head of the House delegation to the energy talks, said Bush gave no indication during the meeting how he viewed such a strategy.
Earlier this year a Senate proposal to open the refuge to oil companies failed 48-50, a dozen votes shy of what would be needed to overcome a promised Democratic filibuster of an energy bill that includes a refuge drilling provision.
There is no indication that Senate sentiment has changed dramatically since then, said one GOP source closely involved in the energy discussions.
"It's certainly a contentious issue, and you'll find strong opinions around the table about this," Bush acknowledged. "And the job of the conferees is to work through these issues, and we look forward to helping them."
While Bush renewed his call to find way to "become less dependent on foreign sources of crude," he did not say - as he often has in the past - that capturing the oil in the Alaska refuge was essential to doing that.
In a letter to energy conferees last week, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham (search) reiterated the administration's desire to exploit the refuge's oil - estimated at between 5.6 billion barrels and 16 billion barrels - and urged conferees to include a drilling provision in the bill.
Still, congressional sources said the administration has not pushed the ANWR issue particularly hard, while stepping up efforts to forge compromises that will assure passage of a broad energy package in the coming weeks.
Domenici has said that he is confident a bill will be approved in part because it has many of the things lawmakers - and the White House - want, including a major expansion of corn-based ethanol (search) in gasoline, a boon to farm states. Last month's blackout added to the sense of urgency, increasing public demand for the government to assure reliability of the nation's power grid.
Bush on Wednesday cited the Aug. 14 blackout, which darkened an area from eastern Michigan to New York, as an additional reason to pass energy legislation. "The American people know we need to have a national energy policy and this is a chance to get it done," he said.
Tauzin said he and the other lawmakers promised the president they would have a bill to his desk by the middle of October. Domenici said his conference committee is "maybe three-quarters of the way finished with the work product."