Moving quickly to flex their new political muscle, Senate Republican leaders are considering using a parliamentary device to sidestep threats of a Democratic filibuster and win approval of one of President Bush's favorite energy initiatives -- opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling.
Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), the new chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said Wednesday that he hopes to attach the drilling measure to a budget bill, just as the GOP-controlled Congress did in 1995.
That measure was vetoed by President Clinton, who sided with environmentalists who contended that drilling would damage one of the nation's most precious wildernesses. But now, a former oilman -- who has called U.S. dependence on foreign oil a threat to national security -- occupies the Oval Office.
Domenici is seeking to break out a contentious issue that contributed to the collapse last year of a comprehensive energy bill, one of Bush's domestic policy priorities. His move also is a sign that Republicans are trying to capitalize on their gains in November's congressional elections to advance the administration's agenda.
But some GOP members are concerned that the drilling plan, if attached to the budget bill, could jeopardize the measure, which may be the vehicle for Bush's economic stimulus plan.
By putting the drilling proposal in the budget bill, proponents would need 50 votes in the 100-member Senate for passage, with Vice President Dick Cheney casting the tie-breaking vote. A budget bill is not subject to a filibuster, which needs 60 votes to be halted.
No one can say with certainty that the drilling proposal will pass, even with the lower threshold for approval. Last year, it was approved by the GOP-controlled House, but got only 46 votes in the Senate. Since then, control of the Senate has shifted to Republicans, although the drilling debate does not fall entirely along party lines.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), a leading opponent of Arctic drilling, wasn't ready to concede defeat.
"I don't think there are 51 votes in the Senate to increase our oil addiction, and if there are, it's an outrage that Americans will remember," said Kerry, a possible presidential candidate in 2004.
Sierra Club lobbyist Melinda Pierce vowed a major fight over any effort to attach the drilling plan to a budget bill. "Drilling in the refuge has nothing to do with balancing the budget -- or with national security, for that matter -- and everything to do with the oil industry's power and influence inside Congress and the White House," she said.
Republicans defend the use of the budget bill, saying that the drilling is expected to generate billions of dollars in revenue for the government.
Bush has proposed opening up a small portion of the 19-million-acre refuge in Alaska's northeastern corner to oil and gas exploration. While foes say that drilling could damage an area they call America's Serengeti, Bush has accused them of exaggerating the effect on the tundra. He and others contend that technology has made it possible to extract the oil without damaging the environment, an assertion that opponents dispute.
The government estimates there are 6 billion to 16 billion barrels of oil beneath the tundra, although opponents argue that only about 3.2 billion barrels can be recovered economically. The United States uses about 7 billion barrels of oil a year.
No final decision has been made. A spokeswoman for the new Senate Budget Committee chairman, Don Nickles (R-Okla.), said the idea is "one of many decisions that Sen. Nickles and the Budget Committee will have to make in the coming weeks."