Measure on Alaska drilling hangs up debate in Senate

Measure was tacked onto funding for Iraq war, Gulf Coast storm relief

December 20, 2005|By GWYNETH K. SHAW | GWYNETH K. SHAW,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- With several contentious issues blocking their path to a holiday exit, senators struggled yesterday over a measure that would open up Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

The drilling legislation was added by Republican leaders over the weekend to the $453 billion spending measure that includes funding for the Iraq war and Gulf Coast hurricane relief. Opponents vowed to fight hard to block it, raising the possibility of mounting a filibuster and tying up business in the Senate.

"Don't hold an appropriations bill hostage to put in one of the most controversial issues of the last 40 years," said Sen. Dianne Feinsten, a California Democrat.

The drilling issue landed in the Senate after the House wrapped up its work early yesterday morning, approving the defense-spending measure and a separate package of spending cuts worth just under $40 billion over the next five years.

The budget cuts - a top priority of Republican leaders - passed the House narrowly, by a vote of 212-206. No Democrat voted for the legislation, and nine Republicans voted against it. The Senate began debating it yesterday.

Maryland's eight-member House delegation split along party lines. The six Democrats - Steny H. Hoyer, Benjamin L. Cardin, Elijah E. Cummings, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, Chris Van Hollen and Albert R. Wynn - voted against the legislation. The two Republicans, Roscoe G. Bartlett and Wayne T. Gilchrest, supported it.

The $453 billion defense bill passed easily, 308-106, despite the drilling provision. Many lawmakers said they felt they had no choice except to support military spending. An earlier, procedural vote was much closer, as opponents of drilling in Alaska registered their displeasure with the measure.

On the defense spending bill, only Cardin, Cummings and Van Hollen voted against the legislation. Bartlett and Gilchrest have opposed drilling in the Arctic preserve - known as ANWR - but both voted for the legislation after voting against the procedural motion to bring it to the House floor for consideration.

Bartlett, who represents Western Maryland and is a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said he simply could not vote against a bill that provided funding for the nation's military operations.

"I think many of the people who are really concerned about ANWR don't believe we should bring down the entire military over ANWR," he said.

Gilchrest, a moderate Republican from the Eastern Shore who tends to support pro-environmental legislation, essentially admitted defeat Sunday night, saying that a "no" vote would be a personal protest but one unlikely to change the outcome.

Cardin said he disliked the measure because of the drilling language and because the military spending bill had become a vehicle for other purposes.

Environmental groups had pressed Gilchrest and Bartlett to oppose Alaskan drilling. But Chris Fick of the liberal Maryland Public Interest Research Group said his organization felt the lawmakers had done all they could to stop it and would not hold their final vote against them.

"Congressman Gilchrest was a man of his word," Fick said. "He did what was reasonably expected from him, as did Bartlett, and we obviously applaud that."

Also left unresolved was the fate of the USA Patriot Act. Four Republicans and most Democrats in the Senate blocked a renewal of the counterterrorism bill late last week because of concerns about parts of the legislation, prompting the White House and Republican Senate leaders to threaten to let 16 provisions included in the existing law expire at the end of the year.

A possible compromise would be a temporary extension of the existing law, for three months or a year, to allow more time to negotiate. President Bush has said he would not sign an extension.

Sen. Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat who has led the fight to make additional changes to the law, said yesterday that if the law lapses, the blame would fall squarely on Bush.

"It's the president who wants to play chicken here," he said. "All he has to do is be a little bit reasonable."

gwyneth.shaw@baltsun.com

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