ANWR Drilling Battle Hits Senate Homestretch

This story first appeared in this morning's E&E Daily.

An explosive showdown over Arctic National Wildlife Refuge oil drilling's potential inclusion in must-pass defense spending legislation is looming as Democrats signaled yesterday they might filibuster the measure.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said he has secured an agreement to attach ANWR oil drilling to the fiscal year 2006 defense spending bill. He told reporters there is agreement with the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Defense Appropriations subcommittees to attach the measure. "It's on it," said Stevens, who chairs the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. "The leaders of the subcommittees said they will support it."

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) said he "very strongly" supports the effort. "We have an energy crisis on our hands," he said.

But the plan also provoked a series of attacks on both sides of the Capitol yesterday, with Democratic leaders in both chambers calling it a giveaway to the energy industry that does not belong in a military funding bill.

John Scofield, spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee, declined to confirm the agreement but said the chairmen and ranking members of the Defense subcommittees have met and discussed a variety of issues, including ANWR. "The conferees have not yet convened, so I think it is premature to discuss a provision that may or may not be in the bill," he said. Passing defense appropriations legislation is considered vital before lawmakers leave for the year.

One major problem with the defense spending bill was cleared up yesterday when the White House dropped opposition to anti-torture language offered by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz). The House has also endorsed the language. Senate leaders who had included ANWR in their budget reconciliation bill are looking elsewhere because a spending cut package with ANWR would face major problems in the House. House leaders were forced to dump ANWR from their budget reconciliation package last month after enough GOP moderates balked at the measure to endanger passage of the spending cuts.

If it is added to the defense bill, opponents would raise a point of order on the Senate floor against the conference report language that was not contained in either chambers' defense bill. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) predicted it would be sustained, adding there could be a filibuster of the bill if GOP leaders successfully appealed a ruling on the point of order. He said overturning a ruling on a point of order -- which could be done with a majority vote -- would be a breach of Senate precedent.

"If it is neccessary that we take a look at extended debate shortly before Christmas, we will do that," Reid said, later adding "there will still be filibuster available to us."

Procedurally, Capitol Hill sources said that under Senate rules, any successful challenge against the ANWR language -- either through the point of order debate or a filibuster against the bill -- would mean taking down the whole defense appropriations conference report.

While some Democrats said ANWR could provoke a filibuster, critics stopped short yesterday of making outright pledges to do so. Asked if inclusion of ANWR would prompt a filibuster, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) said he hoped it would but declined to say if he would lead the charge.

"I would be happy to participate in a filibuster on that," he said.

Whether it would succeed is another question. Pro-drilling lawmakers are shy of 60 votes in favor of opening ANWR -- they had 51 in two Senate votes on ANWR this year -- which explains why the language was added to budget reconciliation legislation that is immune from filibuster. Sixty votes are needed to break a filibuster. But some lawmakers might have a tough time voting against a measure the funds the military in a time of war. And Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said other provisions that appear set for inclusion in the defense bill -- including post-hurricane assistance and avian flu funding -- may make the bill difficult to oppose. "A lot of people are going to have a hard time voting against one part of that or another," he said.

Jon Steinberg, a spokesman for Reid, said that if ANWR's inclusion is challenged and found to be outside the scope of the bill, lawmakers could quickly appoint new conferees and move a defense appropriations bill that does not include ANWR. "We can strip this provision out and still get funding done for our troops," he said.

The plan also drew criticism from some of the handful of Senate Republicans who oppose ANWR drilling. "I don't want to see ANWR in the defense bill, and I don't think it belongs," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).

Said McCain: "I think it's disgraceful that they put us in that position."

But Stevens defended the idea, noting that lawmakers are supporting inclusion of Katrina funding and other items. "The last bill always carries some non-germane bills," he said Wednesday. "This always happens."

Reporter Alex Kaplun contributed to this report

Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. . 202/628-6500.