By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 21, 2005 2:42 PM
The Senate today failed to pass a major defense appropriations bill after a Democratic-led bloc stymied it with a filibuster in an effort to force removal of a controversial provision on oil drilling in an Alaskan wildlife refuge.
With 60 votes needed to overcome the filibuster and cut off debate on the bill, its backers fell short by four votes. The tally on a motion to invoke cloture so the Senate could move to a vote on the bill itself was 56-44.
The Senate showdown came over a provision allowing oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), a measure that was added to the $453 billion fiscal 2006 defense appropriations bill by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). The bill includes money to support U.S. troops in Iraq, as well as $29 billion to help victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Voting to block the bill were 40 Democrats, one independent and three Republicans -- Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Mike DeWine of Ohio and Bill Frist of Tennessee. Frist, the Senate majority leader, had supported passage, but once the voting numbers became clear, he cast a "no" vote for procedural reasons so that he could bring up the drilling issue for another vote.
The four Democrats who split with their colleagues and voted to cut off debate were Daniel Akaka and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Ben Nelson of Nebraska.
In debate before the cloture vote, Stevens told fellow senators, "We know this Arctic. You don't know the Arctic at all." At issue, he said, was "2,000 acres of the Arctic," the amount of land in the refuge that would be opened for drilling. "Is that worth this fight?"
Stevens also denied Democratic charges that he violated a Senate rule to get the drilling provision inserted into the defense appropriations bill. "There's nothing I've done here that violated the rules," he said.
Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) charged on the Senate floor, "Our military is being held hostage by this issue, Arctic drilling." Calling the provision "another gift to special interests," he said, "It's time we said no to an abuse of power."
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) said that even though the bill provides vital defense funding, he was joining the filibuster on principle to prevent attachments such as the drilling provision. "If we yield to this tactic on ANWR," he said, "next year it will be someone else's pet project attached to the defense spending bill."
Frist made a last-minute appeal to senators to halt the filibuster. "We are a nation at war," he said. "The consequences of failure to invoke cloture on the defense appropriations bill when we have troops in the field are grave."
Under pressure from Democrats seeking to drop the provision from the bill, Stevens said on the Senate floor yesterday that he would persevere.
"We're going to face up to ANWR either now or Christmas Day or New Year's Eve or sometime, however long we stay in," he said. He warned that if the drilling provision were blocked, it would delay final passage of the defense bill until next year -- forcing the Pentagon to operate on an extension of 2005 funding levels.
Bracing for the possibility of such a delay, Republican leaders made contingency plans to reconvene the House Thursday to pass a stripped-down defense bill that would fund the Pentagon at the current level.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) yesterday defended Stevens against Democratic charges that he was breaking a Senate rule that prevents unrelated provisions from being inserted into final bills.
"There's nothing new about this process or procedure," Cochran said.
The provision would allow oil companies to drill in a coastal plain that covers about 1.5 million acres of the wildlife refuge, which encompasses a total of about 19 million acres in northeastern Alaska.
More than 10 billion barrels of crude oil are estimated to lie under the refuge, and President Bush has repeatedly urged that they be tapped to help ease U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
But opponents say oil drilling is incompatible with environmental protection in the refuge. Moreover, they say, the impact on the U.S. fuel supply would be minimal and would not be seen for years.
Interior Secretary Gale Norton has said that even if the drilling were approved this year, the first leases could not be issued until 2007, and it would take another seven to 10 years to develop the sites and produce oil.