Arctic Drilling Paired With Military Spending Equals Conflict

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Times Staff Writer

In a last-ditch effort to authorize oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Republican congressional leaders moved Thursday to attach the controversial measure to a popular military spending bill.

Drilling supporters were banking on the hope that opponents would not take the political risk of voting against money for troops in wartime to kill the energy exploration initiative, a priority for President Bush.

Sen. Gordon H. Smith (R-Ore.), who has voted against drilling in the Alaskan wildlife refuge, said he would vote for the military appropriations bill even if the Arctic drilling measure were attached.


“I cannot in good conscience take away [from the troops] their bullets to defend themselves,” Smith said.

Although Arctic drilling has been supported by House and Senate majorities, it has been blocked in the Senate by filibusters led by Democrats.

Republicans have not been able to muster the 60 of 100 senators needed to cut off debate and force a vote.

This year, Senate Republican leaders hit upon a new strategy: attaching the drilling measure to a spending-cut bill that cannot be filibustered.

This time, it was the House’s turn to balk.

To ensure enough moderate Republican votes to pass the spending-cut bill, Republican leaders left drilling out of it. Now the drilling provision has become a major obstacle to forging a compromise bill to cut spending.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), a longtime drilling champion and chairman of the Senate defense appropriations subcommittee, spearheaded the move to attach the drilling measure to the annual military spending bill.


“I am just doing my utmost to do my job, which is to try and get [drilling] approved,” Stevens said Thursday.

But when another drilling proponent, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), was asked whether his side could count on the necessary 60 senators to break a filibuster on a military appropriations bill that included the drilling provision, he said, “We aren’t there yet.”

To attract more votes, drilling supporters were considering adorning the bill with other popular items, such as funds for hurricane relief, home heating and flu pandemic preparation.

A showdown vote on the long-debated issue could come as early as Saturday.

Democratic leaders were pressing their rank and file to stick together to strip the drilling measure from the military spending bill. Their central argument -- that Arctic drilling did not belong in a military appropriations bill -- also resonated with some Republicans.

Several senators from each party who have opposed Arctic drilling acknowledged that adding the measure to the bill would put them in a difficult position.

A group was drafting a letter to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) saying that senators “ought not to exploit ... the well-being of our troops” to advance the drilling measure.


Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a drilling opponent, said he wasn’t sure how he would vote if the bill included the drilling measure.

“That’s the dilemma,” McCain said in an interview. “I think it’s disgraceful I have to be put in that position.”

Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), another drilling opponent, said that adding the measure to the military appropriations bill would make the vote “very uncomfortable for me.”

Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, a former Senate Republican leader, said that if Arctic drilling were attached to a military appropriations bill packed with other popular items, “a lot of people are going to have a hard time voting against it.... I couldn’t vote against it.”

Arctic drilling, one of the nation’s most contentious environmental issues, has been a priority for Bush virtually from the first day he set foot in the Oval Office in 2001.

Drilling supporters contend that the Alaskan tundra offers potentially one of the most significant petroleum fields in the nation -- an estimated 10 billion barrels of oil. The U.S. consumes 20 million barrels a day.


Drilling foes contend that energy production in the refuge would spoil a national environmental treasure and endanger wildlife, while doing little to bring down gasoline prices because it would be years before the oil could reach market.

“It makes no sense to attach drilling in a wildlife refuge to the Department of Defense appropriations bill,” said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a leading drilling opponent.

“The result will simply slow down the approval of funding for the troops. Let us hope that those who captain the Senate will turn this ship around before it founders on a filibuster.”