One prominent Democrat, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, has vowed to block any vote on opening the refuge.
"Big oil and its allies have lusted over the refuge for two decades," Kerry said last week. "They make up new arguments for despoiling a unique and irreplaceable arctic environment for a quantity of petroleum that simply will not reduce the fact of our dependency on high-risk foreign oil."
20 million barrels per day
The United States consumes about 20 million barrels of oil each day. Based on conservative predictions, petroleum economists for the state of Alaska estimate that ANWR's coastal plain would yield roughly 750,000 to 800,000 barrels of oil a day for the five to six years of peak production, doubling the state's production. But they also estimate that it will take until 2015 for the new field to be in full production.
Daschle told the White House last year that he would bring the energy debate to the Senate floor in January or February, and Daschle's aides say he will fulfill that pledge.
But those invested in the debate on both sides concede that it will take enormous political will to get a major bill passed. Beyond the Alaska refuge and Enron, other factors are complicating the debate.
Advocates of a new energy policy face a climate that's far different from the one in May, when Bush began lobbying for his program. At that time, electricity prices were skyrocketing, and California was suffering blackouts. Now that Americans no longer face eye-popping electric bills, lawmakers do not necessarily feel the urgency to tackle energy problems.
"I think we need an energy policy in this country, and we are in a crisis," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat. "But there is no longer a political mandate to do this. Energy just doesn't have the same priority it did."
Cardin added, "If there was a political will to pass an energy bill, we could resolve the ANWR issue."
Bush alters approach
The fading of a visible crisis has caused Bush to change his pitch. Last year, he spoke of blackouts in California and of the need to prevent them from recurring. Today, Bush speaks more of how a sound energy policy creates jobs.
One senior administration official insisted that the easing of the price shocks of last year would not slow the momentum. Bush, the official said, had argued all along that a comprehensive policy was not meant to deal with immediate crises but to avert energy shortfalls and soaring prices before they happen.
The official acknowledged concern, though, that the fight over drilling in Alaska could distract lawmakers from a debate in areas where progress is possible.
"ANWR is a difficult issue," the official said. "You don't look at the other 90 percent where there's agreement, but you look instead at that."
Those involved in the rift say either side could use the Alaska refuge to hold a bill hostage. Democrats could accuse Republicans of blocking progress by refusing even to scale back a plan that would severely harm the environment.
Republicans could accuse Democrats of exaggerating the harm of drilling in Alaska. They also could blame Democrats for forcing the nation to continue its dependence on foreign oil.
Alternatively, the two sides could reach a compromise. But there is no sign of that. Democrats, under pressure from environmentalists, have said the wildlife refuge is off limits. Republicans have said any policy must include Alaskan drilling because the ample resources there would help the United States reduce its dependence on oil from abroad.
Bingaman, the Energy Committee chairman, and other lawmakers say much will depend on whether members of Congress are willing to debate other energy issues independently of the Arctic refuge.
For example, both parties say they want to find ways to encourage households and businesses to use less energy. Both have also said they are considering raising fuel-efficiency standards so cars use less energy and pollute less. And both sides favor such ideas as "clean-coal technology" to ensure that fossil fuels don't dirty the environment as much as they have. Coal-fired power plants account for more than half of the nation's electricity.
Yet members of both parties concede that they remain far apart on some of these ideas too.
"Energy can be very political, because there are huge special interests involved," said J. Bennett Johnston, a former Democratic senator from Louisiana who led the Energy Committee in 1992, the last time a major energy bill was approved. "Yeah, I think we ought to drill in ANWR," added Johnston, a rare Democrat who takes that position. "But this issue should not eclipse the entire energy agenda of the United States. And I really hope it doesn't."