Here are the latest developments in the ongoing struggle on Capitol Hill surrounding drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR):
The House of Representatives voted early Monday morning to approve the Budget Reconciliation Bill (which no longer had ANWR language attached) as well as the Defense Appropriations Bill (which did have ANWR language attached, see last ANWR update).
However, opposition in the Senate led by Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Harry Reid (D-NV), Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) and John Kerry (D-MA), prevented a vote today on the defense bill which contained a rider ammendment that would have opened ANWR for oil exploration and extraction.
In an after-midnight vote ending a marathon session of negotiations and bargaining, the House approved the deficit reduction bill by a thin margin of 212-206. It now goes to the Senate (again) where it is expected to face an even tougher vote. The deficit reduction bill passed by the House claimed savings of $39.7 billion over five years, 2.5 percent of the $1.6 trillion in total red ink that congressional officials estimate will pile up for the same period.
The budget bill was formerly the focal point of the ANWR debate after a rider amendment was attached to the bill by pro-drilling members of Congress towards the end of October. The bill passed the Senate in November with ANWR language attached only to have the language dropped by the Republican leadership after it faced strong opposition in the House, including opposition from a number of moderate conservatives, which led House Republicans to fear that the ANWR language threatened passage the crucial budget bill.
Pro-drilling advocates, led by Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK), didn't let this defeat phase them and quickly proceeded to draft another rider that would open ANWR for drilling, attaching it this time to the defense spending bill. The defense bill, with the ANWR language attached, passed the House by a lopsided vote of 308-106 early Monday morning. Democrats were split as they were confronted with a choice of opposing the defense bill which not only contained money for the troops in Iraq but also Katrina relief appropriations and low-income energy assistance or instead voting for ANWR drilling.
The defense bill then moved to the Senate where Democrats threatened to filibuster the bill over the oil drilling issue. Earlier today, Republican leaders fell four votes short of getting the required 60 votes to close debate on the bill and avoid the threatened filibuster. The 56-44 vote prompted GOP leaders to huddle in private over their next move.
In a bit of Senate procedural maneuvering, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist cast his vote with ANWR opponents which apparently allows him to resurrect the issue for another try later. However, Democrats said they expected the defense bill to be withdrawn and reworked without the Arctic refuge provision.
Thus, 43 senators truly opposed refuge drilling including all but four Democrats as well as GOP Senators Mike DeWine of Ohio and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island. They are reportedly "intent and unyielding" and do not expected to budge should Frist try for another vote, according to Senator Lieberman.
"It took a lot of guts for a lot of people to stand up," Lieberman, said after the vote. It seems that Senators were buoyed by hopes that a filibuster would succeed and were able to stand up to oppose the defense bill, unlike their compatriots in the House who lack the option to filibuster. Still, it takes a lot of guts to oppose ANWR drilling when it is hidden within a critical defense bill that also contains disaster relief money. I hope that those who stood up today to oppose ANWR drilling are not inaccurately branded as against Katrina relief or supporting our troops for taking a stand on this issue.
As Senator Kerry, a strong critic of disturbing the refuge in northeastern Alaska by oil development, said today, "We all agree we want money for our troops. ... This is not about the troops."
"Our military is being held hostage by this issue, Arctic drilling," fumed Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic leader. The Nevada Democrat pointed out that the Senate could move quickly to pass the defense bill with Democratic support once the refuge issue was resolved.
"This is nothing more than a sweetheart deal for Alaska and the oil companies," Sen. Cantwell had said. She had previously vowed that she was "prepared to use every procedural option available to [her] as a senator to prevent this language from moving forward." It seems that her tough stance has prevailed.
Widespread public opposition to this latest attempt to drill in ANWR was quickly mobilized by groups like the Wilderness Society, SaveOurEnvironment.org, and MoveOn which likely contributed to this victory for drilling opponents.
"There are literally hundreds of thousands of Americans following this issue," William Meadows, president of the Wilderness Society, said Tuesday (as quoted by the Post), adding that there has been "an outpouring of angst and concern" over Stevens' attempt to link hurricane relief money, low-income energy assistance funds and money for the Iraq war to push the drilling measure through a reluctant Senate.
Todays vote was a stinging defeat for Sen. Ted Stevens, one of the Senate's most powerful members, who has been the most vocal and adamant supporter of opening the refuge for drilling. Stevens has tried everything he can to get ANWR language passed and it is likely that he and his supporters have not given up yet.
Still, we can again be thankful for a temporary victory over drilling opponents and know that the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is safe, at least for the time being.
I'd like to encourage you to thank your representatives if they opposed ANWR drilling and let them know you continue to support their efforts. They face significant political ramifications for opposing the bills that ANWR language has been attached to and the continued support will encourage them to stand firm in the future. It also wouldn't hurt to express your dissapointment with your representatives if they did not oppose the defense bill. You can find contact info for your Representative here and your Senators here
I'll leave you with this...