By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 3/17/2005 8:34:54 AM ET 2005-03-17T13:34:54

By a vote of 51 to 49, the Senate Wednesday defeated a measure that would have banned oil exploration and drilling on the 1.5 million acre coastal plain of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

It was a victory for Alaska’s two Republican senators, Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski, and for the Bush administration, but as both Stevens and Murkowski acknowledged in a news conference immediately afterward, substantial legislative hurdles remain before drilling could begin.

“Some people think we can send the exploration rigs out there tomorrow and that is not the case, we still have quite a ways to go,” Murkowski said.

A tense roll call
On the Senate floor, the final minutes of the roll call were tense, with a few senators waiting until the end to finally cast their vote. One of the last was Sen. Arlen Specter, R- Pa., who voted against the drilling ban. Murkowski gratefully shook his hand after he voted.

“As we move forward and go through additional procedural hurdles, you will see a consistency with the vote,” Murkowski predicted. “It doesn’t mean we’re going to take for granted that everyone who has voted this way today will remain the same. But it is a marker.”

She explained that “the biggest hurdle we have is that we don’t (yet) have a budget. This will be a component of that budget, and now all this rides on the success of having a budget.”

The climactic vote will not come until late summer when the Senate is likely to vote on what is called the reconciliation act.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that bids for ANWR leases would yield federal proceeds over a 10-year period of $2.6 billion.

The U.S. Geological Survey’s estimate of the economically recoverable resources is about 6 billion barrels at prices at or above $35 per barrel. The United States imported an average of about 9.7 million barrels of crude oil per day in January.

Budget measure as vehicle
Senate Republicans are using the fiscal year 2006 budget resolution as the vehicle for authorizing oil exploration in ANWR because under Senate rules it requires only 51 votes to pass and is not subject to a filibuster, which can only be overcome with 60 votes.

The Senate is expected to vote on the budget resolution by Friday night.

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Speaking a few hours before Wednesday’s vote, Melinda Pierce, a lobbyist on the Arctic issue for the Sierra Club, said there was no assurance that the Republicans could pass the budget resolution due to “a whole host of things” including proposed cuts in Medicaid spending.

ANWR drilling foes may be able to join forces with other opponents of budget cuts to defeat the budget resolution, she suggested.

And she added, “definitely litigation is a tool still available to us way down the line” to prevent drilling in ANWR.

In the next two days, Democrats also may try to attach an amendment to the resolution that could derail the budget plan when Senate negotiators meet with their House counterparts next month to devise a compromise blueprint.

Last year, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., was able to attach to the budget resolution a spending limitation amendment which resulted in deadlock with the House; thus the Senate never passed a budget resolution last year.

Potential snags
This year Feingold has re-introduced his amendment. And the Medicaid amendment also poses a potential problem for proponents of drilling.

Murkowski indicted she’d urge senators to vote against amendments that would jeopardize the budget resolution and thus ANWR drilling. “I’ve got a very vested interest in making sure that we’ve got a successful budget.”

On the vote on a Democratic-sponsored amendment to ban ANWR drilling, seven Republican senators voted with most Democrats for the drilling ban. The Republicans were:

Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island; Norm Coleman of Minnesota; Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine; Mike DeWine of Ohio; John McCain of Arizona; and Gordon Smith of Oregon.

Three Democrats voted against the drilling ban: Sens. Daniel Akaka and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.

In comments after the vote, Energy Committee chairman Sen. Pete Domenici, a strong proponent of ANWR drilling, said the message to the American people was “It’s time to wake up. The United States is in a terrible crisis. I don’t know how we can make the point that we are so vulnerable. … To be almost 70 percent dependent on oil from overseas is a crisis, a crisis waiting to befall America.”

Interior Secretary Gale Norton said allowing drilling in ANWR ought not to be seen as a precedent for allowing drilling elsewhere.

“ANWR needs to be judged on its own merits,” she said. “There are people who have said, ‘if you go into ANWR, you’re going to be going into all the parts of wilderness areas in this country.’ That is clearly not true. … People have said if you go into ANWR there are going to be drilling rigs right off the beaches of Florida. That is clearly not the case. The president has ordered a moratorium that will protect Florida waters.”

But for newly-elected Republican Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida, the concern about Florida's Gulf Coast waters was a factor in his ANWR vote.

Martinez said he had persuaded the White House to send a letter saying that the moratorium on oil drilling off Florida's coast would be extended from 2007 to 2012.

"I don't know if it was a legitimate concern, but it was an issue being raised by those who wanted me to vote against ANWR," Martinez said. Referring to the moratorium extension, he said, "I worked very hard to make it happen."

Martinez said he had not made his final decision on ANWR prior to getting the White House letter on moratorium extension. He will introduce a bill to make the moratorium on Florida Gulf Coast drilling permanent.

Democrats protested both the idea of drilling in ANWR and the budget procedure Republicans used to authorize drilling there.

Threat to other areas?
“It is our duty as elected officials to fight to commit the federal government to recognize some of America’s pristine lands as ‘off limits’ to development,” said Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., after the vote. “There are lands in our nation with pristine value we should protect: the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of them.”

Opening ANWR to drilling would, he said, “set an ominous precedent. Coloradans and Americans alike should know that once this door is unlocked it will be that much easier to unhinge the protections of every refuge from the Alamosa Natural Wildlife Refuge in my home San Luis Valley to the Florida Everglades Wildlife Refuge.”

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