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Congress Moves Closer to Allowing Arctic Drilling

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans have moved closer to allowing drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge after voting down a Democratic measure to stop the controversial issue from being included in the GOP budget.

The Democratic amendment failed on Thursday on a 48-52 vote, with Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, each breaking from their parties, but effectively canceling out each other's votes.

Manchin sits on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which will now take up the drilling issue, so his vote dims opponents' hopes of stopping it there.

Instead, environmental activists and their allies in Congress hope to block the issue later in the process, which could take months, since it's tied up with the GOP tax reform effort.

In question was a provision in the GOP budget instructing the Energy and Natural Resources Committee to find $1 billion in new revenue, which Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the committee's chairwoman, is expected to do by opening a section of the refuge to oil production.

"I think that the instruction will allow us to really see some enduring benefits that will be felt all across our country," Murkowksi, a longtime advocate of arctic drilling, said on the Senate floor Thursday. "And I think it's important to recognize and to state that this does not come at the expense of our environment."

Environmentalists vehemently disagree, arguing that the refuge is one of the last unspoiled places in the country and that the damage done by drilling would dramatically outweigh any benefits.

A recent report from the liberal Center for American Progress said drilling would raise only $37.5 million in revenue for the U.S. Treasury over the next 10 years, far less than proponents say.

If the Energy and Natural Resources Committee formally recommends the opening of Arctic drilling, it will be included in the GOP tax reform proposal and then have to make it through both chambers of Congress again. Moderate Republicans in the House have blocked refuge drilling in the past, and opponents are hoping to use that playbook again this time.