By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 20, 2005
It's an audacious power play, even for Sen. Ted Stevens.
The wily and cantankerous Alaska Republican is trying to secure the mother of all pet projects for his state: oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Stevens has attached the provision to a popular defense spending bill and has put holiday plans of his Senate colleagues on hold as he dares Democratic and moderate Republican opponents to vote against it.
The former Appropriations Committee chairman is a master of legislative larding, but this latest gambit may be riskier than usual. It is the last in a string of high-profile battles this year that included an angry showdown over funding in the highway bill for the "Bridge to Nowhere."
Alaska drilling is the most controversial environmental issue before Congress, a far cry from the usual Native Alaskan and salmon subsidies. And Stevens has tucked it into a bill that funds the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I support what he's doing, but if you're too cute in maneuvers, they can backfire on you," warned Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.). "That's a big package there, and we are up against Christmas. I sure hope someone has counted the votes."
While neither side will predict the outcome, some drilling opponents said they will not budge. "It doesn't belong on a defense bill," Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee (R.I.) said of the drilling provision. The moderate Republican said Stevens is misusing his authority as the sponsor of the defense spending bill, granting drilling "a significance that is out of proportion. It's just not fair."
But Stevens said that if the drilling provision falls, other non-defense programs in the bill would suffer, because royalty revenues from oil would fund low-income heating assistance and relief to the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast. "The real possibility is that unless we pass this bill, a lot of those people are not going to receive the assistance they should have," Stevens said.
The gruff former World War II pilot has been at the center of spending battles since he took over as Appropriations chairman in 1997. Known for his "Incredible Hulk" necktie, Stevens famously described himself as a "mean, miserable SOB." But his growling delivery masks a deep, emotional commitment to Alaska -- a vast, distant and sparsely populated state that typically leads the nation in federal pork.
This year, Stevens had to relinquish the Appropriations chairmanship because of term limits, handing the gavel to Republican Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi. As part of a broader belt-tightening effort during this year's spending process, some Alaska projects -- from berry research to the Tongass aquarium -- were cut slightly. But there was plenty of other bounty. Bean's Cafe, an Anchorage homeless shelter, received $400,000 to upgrade its kitchen, and the Bering Straits Native Corp. in Nome received $750,000 for quarry upgrades.
"Senator Stevens has a very large state and lots of opportunity," said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, a government watchdog group that has rated the senator the No. 1 pork purveyor for six years in a row.
Stevens has a notorious temper, and controversy emboldens him. In October, he threatened to resign his seat, which he has held for 37 years, when the Senate weighed rescinding a portion of the roughly $450 million in highway funds targeted to two Alaska bridge projects. One, dubbed "The Bridge to Nowhere" because of its remote location and high price tag, would link tiny Ketchikan with its airport on Gravina Island.
The explosive senator stomped onto the Senate floor and declared: "It will not happen. It will not happen." And it didn't -- Alaska got the money, and can spend it on whatever transportation projects it pleases.
The bridge flap gained national attention, cited by critics as a wasteful contrast to the recovery costs related to Hurricane Katrina, which hit the Gulf Coast after Congress passed the transportation bill last summer. The two bridges in question were not a huge priority within the state, and some Alaskans expressed concerns about a funding backlash.
That said, many Alaskans take a practical view of Stevens. "I would not say he's the most popular person in Alaska," said Gerald McBeath, a professor of political science at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. "But people are aware of the seniority system and its benefits. It's a very healthy contribution that we receive from the federal government."
But the proposal to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has long eluded Stevens. He has tried to attach it to all sorts of bills, but has never been able to navigate around fiercely opposed environmental groups, which say that the refuge is a pristine wilderness and should not be sacrificed for what they contend is a limited amount of oil.
Earlier this year, Stevens and his longtime friend and drilling ally Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, hatched a plan to insert the Arctic provision in a major deficit reduction bill. Because the budget-cutting measure enjoyed special protection from parliamentary hurdles in the Senate, Stevens and Domenici thought it would be the perfect vehicle for passing the drilling plan. But that tactic had to be scuttled in the House because of strong objections from Republican moderates.
At the urging of House GOP leaders, Stevens decided to try his luck on the defense bill. Environmental groups, relieved they had beaten back the budget threat, were shocked when they learned last Wednesday of Stevens's latest plan. "I just didn't think it was possible," said Brian Moore, legislative director of the Alaska Wilderness League, an environmental group trying to preserve the refuge.
Democrats are considering their parliamentary options for a showdown expected tomorrow in the Senate. A memo circulating among Democratic senators and their staffs pointed out that the new language authorizes drilling in a larger area than would have been allowed in the budget bill. They also noted that President Bush would have broad discretion over how royalties are spent.
Democrats and moderate Republicans said that in challenging the drilling provision, they will argue that inserting an unrelated provision in the defense bill is a breach of Senate rules.
Stevens retorted: "I've done nothing illegal. I've done nothing immoral." Even more ominous for impatient senators, he appeared to be in no rush. "I could go all month," Stevens said on the Senate floor Monday. "I've been with it for 25 years."