Senate rejects Alaska drilling

Cuts in spending on Medicare, Medicaid, student loans OK'd

December 22, 2005|By RICHARD SIMON AND JOEL HAVEMANN | RICHARD SIMON AND JOEL HAVEMANN,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Amid political drama yesterday, the Senate blocked an effort to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling while approving the first significant tightening of federal spending in nearly a decade.

Supporters of the oil-drilling proposal, led by Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, had hoped that high gasoline prices and bigger GOP majorities in the House and Senate would help them achieve their long-sought goal. They fell four votes short of overcoming a Democratic-led filibuster.

Hours earlier, nearly $40 billion in budget cuts were approved when Vice President Dick Cheney cut short a trip to the Middle East to break a 50-50 tie.

The spending cuts, assailed by Democrats and some Republicans as hurting the poor, were a victory for President Bush's effort to spearhead an intensified drive to reduce the budget deficit.

The defeat of the Arctic drilling measure was a blow to Bush, who has pursued opening the wildlife refuge to energy exploration since he took office.

The mixed results were emblematic of a tumultuous session in which Republicans chalked up legislative victories but failed to complete a number of their priorities because of divisions in their ranks. That could portend a rancorous session next year, as both parties gear up for the 2006 midterm elections.

Much of the tension yesterday surrounded the debate over the oil-drilling proposal, with both sides lobbying frantically at the last minute, an emotional exchange between two of the Senate's oldest members and uncertainty about the outcome right up to the roll call.

The drilling measure was opposed on environmental grounds and because Stevens, one of the most adroit senators at behind-the-scenes maneuvering, had attached it to a $491 billion defense spending bill. Critics called that a violation of Senate rules.

"I love my friend from Alaska," Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, said during the debate. "But I love the Senate more." Byrd, 88, has served in the chamber since 1958, longer than any other current member.

Stevens, 82, sporting an "Incredible Hulk" necktie that he wears for major legislative battles and asking the "Good Lord to help me keep my temper," delivered an impassioned appeal to support arctic drilling, which he has pursued for 25 years.

He reminded colleagues of his attention to their needs in recent years as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

"I ask everyone, every one of you, have you ever come to me as a chairman of appropriations and tell me you needed help for your state, and I have turned you down?" Stevens said.

A number of Democrats said they felt political pressure in going up against Stevens and casting a vote that Republicans could portray as anti-military.

"This was one of those moments where fighting one of the most powerful senators there is ... took a lot of guts for a lot of people," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat who is a longtime opponent of drilling.

Democrats accused Stevens of holding the defense bill hostage to pursue his favorite cause.

"Drilling will not give us more energy security, but it will carry huge environmental costs," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat.

The spending measure, portrayed by Bush and congressional GOP leaders as part of an intensified effort to trim the budget deficit, would cut about $40 billion over five years from Medicaid, Medicare, student loans and other fast-growing programs.

The House approved the measure early Monday.

Democrats eliminated several provisions, so the bill will be sent back to the House, whose members have left town for the holidays . The changes will delay final approval of one of the GOP's priorities. It was not immediately clear when the House might take up the bill, but it is expected to approve the Senate changes.

The budget savings would be a small percentage of federal spending but would mark the first time since 1997 that Congress has taken even a modest step toward slowing the growth of spending for such programs as Medicaid, the federal health care program for the poor.

Democrats denounced the Medicaid cuts, saying they would harm the poor. They contend that the savings will be wiped out by GOP plans to seek approval early next year of an additional $60 billion or more in tax cuts.

Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican, called the vote a step "to put our fiscal house back in order."

"We simply cannot continue on the path to higher deficits, saddling our children and grandchildren with this generation's fiscal obligations," he said.

Senate approval of the budget cuts took a bit of sting out of a rough month for the president. In recent weeks he reluctantly accepted a ban on inhumane treatment of detainees by U.S. interrogators, lost a Senate vote on extending the Patriot Act and faces calls from members of his party for congressional hearings into a secret domestic eavesdropping program he ordered as part of the anti-terrorism campaign.

Richard Simon and Joel Havemann write for the Los Angeles Times.

Developments in Congress

The Senate blocked a Republican-backed effort to allow drilling for oil in an Alaska wildlife refuge, President Bush's top energy priority. The measure had been included in a defense spending bill.

Legislation to cut federal deficits by $39.7 billion passed 51-50, with Vice President Dick Cheney casting the deciding vote. Funding for student loans, Medicare and Medicaid was affected.

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