ANWR: All Eyes on GOP Moderates as Final Budget Vote Nears

A nail-biter of a vote on final passage of the fiscal year 2007 budget resolution is expected today after a showdown on whether Arctic National Wildlife Refuge oil drilling will progress in the Senate this year.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) plans to offer an amendment to strip ANWR from the package today, but if votes mirror last year's effort, then it will fail by a very narrow margin. Last year, her ANWR amendment went down 49-51. Failure this time around sets up the vote on the budget package itself as perhaps the Senate's final say on opening the refuge through the budget process.

If the ANWR amendment fails, a key issue will be how GOP moderates that oppose drilling vote on the final passage of the resolution. The vote is expected today, with seven GOP members on the record as opposed to Arctic drilling. They are Lincoln Chafee (R.I.), Mike DeWine (Ohio), Olympia Snowe (Maine), Susan Collins (Maine), Norm Coleman (Minn.), Gordon Smith (Ore.) and John McCain (Ariz.).

Last year, when the budget resolution passed the Senate 51-49 with ANWR intact, it had the support of McCain, Coleman, Collins and Smith. The other three anti-drilling GOP members voted against final passage of the budget blueprint.

Snowe's plans emerged as a topic of intense speculation last night. While she opposed the budget last year, she scored a major victory yesterday when her Medicare amendment passed 54-44. It paves the way for legislation to allow the Secretary of Health and Human Services to negotiate drug prices through Medicare, said the offices of Snowe and cosponsor Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) yesterday.

Even so, Snowe told reporters last night after her amendment passed that she has not decided how she will vote on final passage if ANWR language survives.

Coleman has said that unlike last year, he will oppose final passage if ANWR is intact. This week he contrasted last year's budget that sought savings from several mandatory spending programs, while this year ANWR is the only reconciliation item. Environmentalists are appealing to senators to view the budget vote as a referendum on drilling.

While vote counting at this stage is a precarious exercise, Coleman's reversal from last year would be effectively negated if Snowe backed the budget package.

Also unclear is what Collins, Snowe's Maine colleague, will do. Collins told reporters yesterday that a package with ANWR would be tough for her to back, but did not entirely close the door.

"It would be very difficult for me to vote for final passage if ANWR were in the budget," she said. "I need to look at the entire budget and there are still many many amendments, but it certainly would be a major factor in my consideration."

McCain said last night he will reluctantly back the final package even if ANWR remains, noting he would cast the vote "very unhappily." DeWine confirmed last night that he will again vote against the package if ANWR is included.

A spokesman for Smith yesterday said it was premature to say what he would do. "The budget resolution is not done yet. We are voting on a lot of amendments," spokesman Chris Matthews said yesterday morning. He noted that Smith last year backed the overall package after joining the unsuccessful fight to strip ANWR.

Finally, Chafee is expected to fight against any budget that includes ANWR, said congressional and environmental group sources tracking the issue.

The budget projects $6 billion in ANWR leasing revenues, to be split 50-50 with the state of Alaska. As a result, it gives a $3 billion reconciliation instruction to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee with the assumption it will be met by authorizing leasing on ANWR's coastal plain.

Looking past the Senate, if a budget with ANWR passes, questions remain about the viability of addressing ANWR through the budget process in the House. ANWR was derailed during the budget reconciliation process -- which comes months after the budget resolution -- in the House last year amid revolt by GOP moderates and unified Democratic opposition to GOP budget plans.

ANWR on its own has enough votes to pass the House because it has the support of over two dozen Democrats, but the dynamic changes when it is included in the budget process. But using the budget process is perhaps the only way ANWR can advance in the Senate, because budget measures cannot be filibustered.

Last year, House Democrats opposed GOP plans to trim several mandatory spending programs. Even if those were left out, however, one environmentalist believes it is doubtful that GOP budget plans will attract Democratic backing because Democrats are loath to hand the GOP victories. "It is an election year and they smell blood in the water," the environmentalist said.

Introduction of the budget has been put off until after recess in the House.

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