WASHINGTON - By a decisive margin, the Senate rejected President Bush's bid to open Alaska's wildlife refuge to oil drilling, siding yesterday with those who argued that the potential boost in domestic fuel supplies wasn't worth the risk of damaging America's last unspoiled wilderness.
Months of highly charged debate, which pitted some of the nation's most politically potent interest groups against each other, concluded with a tally of 54-46 against drilling. Supporters fell five votes short of a majority and 14 votes fewer than the 60 they needed to shut down a filibuster by opponents.
"Fifty-four [votes] is a significant statement to those who wanted to do this that they ought to stand back and readjust," said Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, one of several prospective Democratic presidential contenders who led the resistance.
Supporters vowed to raise the issue again when the Senate completes work on a sweeping energy policy bill and begins negotiations with the House, which has approved energy legislation that includes a provision to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"At a time when oil and gas prices are rising, the Senate today missed an opportunity to lead America to greater energy independence," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer in a statement after the vote. "The president will continue to fight for the tens of thousands of jobs that are created by opening ANWR, as well as, more importantly, for the need for America to be able to achieve more energy independence."
But yesterday's vote underscored the strength of the environmental lobby, which for years has made blocking drilling in the refuge its top priority and a litmus test for congressional candidates seeking environmental support.
"This is a test," said Betsy Loyless, political director of the League of Conservation Voters, which scores lawmakers on their environmental records and warned senators this week that it would probably count the refuge votes twice. "We've been working this issue for more than 20 years."
Eight Republicans joined all but four Democrats to oppose the drilling at a time when oil supplies from the Middle East seem increasingly at risk and gasoline prices are rising. Opponents also resisted the combined forces of the oil lobby and Teamsters union, which supported the measure because of its potential to create jobs.
A last-ditch attempt to peel away steel industry advocates with a proposal to use Alaska oil revenue to provide health care benefits for retired steelworkers failed on a separate vote of 64-36. Maryland Democrats Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, prospective targets of the steel deal, voted against it and against the drilling proposal.
"The party platform of the Democratic Party is to oppose drilling on these lands," said Sen. Ted Stevens, who, with Alaska's other Republican senator, reacted bitterly to the defeat of the proposal. "It is a political issue, and it's high time to face up to it."
Stevens and Sen. Frank H. Murkowski, who is running for governor of Alaska this year, have been doggedly promoting the drilling proposal because of the jobs it would bring to their state and for a cut of the oil revenues that would flow into state coffers. Alaska residents pay no income tax and receive instead an $1,800 annual check underwritten by state oil revenues.
Equally unhappy yesterday was Jerry Hood, a special assistant to Teamsters President James P. Hoffa, who has been lobbying the refuge issue for nearly a year but lost many traditional labor supporters on the Senate vote. "We will remember who our friends were and who they weren't," Hood said after the vote.
Preserving the refuge has a powerful emotional appeal because of the threat that environmentalists insist development poses to caribou, polar bears, musk oxen and many other species of rare plants and animals.
But drilling opponents contend that beyond the emotional tug of the wilderness, logic also was on their side: There isn't enough oil in the refuge, they say, to make a difference in world oil prices or to significantly reduce U.S. energy dependence.
According to estimates by the Department of the Interior, the refuge would supply about 1.9 million barrels a day at peak production. The United States uses 19 million barrels a day.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, said the refuge would produce a total of 2.3 billion barrels by 2030. She observed that three times as much oil could be saved over the same period by demanding better gas mileage from SUVs, and six times as much could be saved by increasing the gas mileage on cars.
"You could get more oil than from ANWR if you just use better tires," Boxer told the Senate.
The Senate and the House - voting on a broad bipartisan basis - have rejected bids to raise the fuel efficiency standards.
Yesterday's vote appears to doom, at least for this Congress, the key element of Bush's proposal to address U.S. energy needs by increasing domestic production.