A Bit of Drama on Senate Floor

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) added a provision to a defense bill.
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) added a provision to a defense bill. (Chip Somodevilla - Getty Images)
By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 22, 2005

It was quite a bull session between two old bulls.

Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, battered all week for using the defense spending bill to force through a home-state oil drilling provision, delivered an emotional plea to his colleagues as the Senate prepared to vote on the legislation.

"I ask every one of you, have you ever come to me as chairman of appropriations and tell me you needed help for your state and I have turned you down?" implored the Republican, who led the Senate Appropriations Committee until term limits forced him to step down this year.

If Stevens has an equal in logrolling, it is Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia. But the veteran Democrat, another former appropriations chairman, would have none of the drilling maneuver and charged that Stevens was breaking Senate rules.

"I love my friend from Alaska, I say," Byrd thundered. "I feel that my blood in my veins is with his blood. But I love the Senate more."

Byrd and Stevens -- their collective age is 170 -- are masters of the legislative game as well as melodramatic floor speech. They know every nook and cranny of the Senate rulebook -- a malleable text, if yesterday's debate was any guide.

At the heart of the argument between Byrd and Stevens was whether Stevens had violated Rule 28, which bars unrelated provisions from being inserted in final bills. Over the years, many senators have found Rule 28 to be inconvenient. It disappeared for four years in the late 1990s, and it's flouted routinely to this day. "It is true that noncontroversial extraneous matter is often included in conference reports," Byrd said. "It is true that senators acquiesce on many occasions."

But not on this occasion. For 25 years, Stevens, 82, has tried to secure federal permission to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a remote wilderness area in Alaska's northeast corner. This week, he attached the provision to the fiscal 2006 defense appropriations bill, which also includes hurricane relief funding, and threatened to keep the Senate in session through the holidays until Democrats and moderate Republicans dropped their procedural objections and allowed the bill, with the drilling provision, to pass.

Byrd, who is 88 and will seek a ninth term in 2006, strode onto the Senate floor yesterday to deliver his version of a stinging rebuke.

"The issue of drilling . . . is close, close to the heart, dear to the heart of the senator from Alaska," Byrd said. "I admire his unyielding commitment to the people of his state. I honor him for that. I consider him a dear friend."

He was just warming up. "My remarks today do not reflect upon [Stevens] or upon his efforts in regard to the people he represents," Byrd continued, thunder clouds gathering in his voice. "I abhor, I abhor this idea. Shame. If such a scheme were carried into effect, it could seriously impair the Senate rules."

Stevens interjected, "Would the senator yield?"

He would not. "I came here and swore an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States and I would die upholding that oath," Byrd vowed.

Stevens concurred, at least in his reverence for the Senate. "As my good friend from West Virginia says, we're in a temple. We're in the temple. I've lived in the temple for 37 years," said Stevens, referring to his tenure. "I've studied beside my friend from West Virginia. But I'll tell him he was wrong."

The Republican then recited the argument he had been making all week, that it was House GOP leaders who urged him to add the provision, that the revenue from drilling would provide vital aid to the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast, and that "nothing in this bill would allow the majority to go amok."

But last night, when the Senate voted to strike the drilling provision, Stevens did not take it well. "This has been the saddest day of my life," he said. "It's a day I don't want to remember. I say goodbye to the Senate tonight. Thank you very much."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company