Budget Vote Revives Bid for Arctic Oil Drilling

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 18, 2006

A last-minute deal to secure the vote of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) on a $2.8 trillion budget plan has given new life to the Republican drive to open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

The budget blueprint for fiscal 2007, which will begin in October, includes a $10 billion Gulf Coast restoration fund that would be financed from the leasing of arctic refuge drilling rights, revenue from new drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf of the Gulf of Mexico and further sales of the broadcast spectrum. With that provision in hand, Landrieu cast the only Democratic vote for the budget resolution, which squeaked through Thursday night, 51 to 49.

"It's not easy being alone on anything. I don't relish this position," Landrieu said. "But, at times, it's necessary."

Republicans, who have been trying to open up the refuge for well over a decade, hope that by explicitly linking oil drilling to Gulf Coast restoration, they can prompt some Democrats to drop their opposition. Under the Senate plan, the funds from oil leases could be used for coastal restoration projects in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama that have long been sought by environmentalists. The fund could also be tapped to rebuild levees damaged last year by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

But it is not clear whether the political equation has shifted at all since December, when moderate Republicans -- led by Rep. Charles Bass (R-N.H.) -- forced their leaders to take arctic drilling out of a 2006 budget-cutting measure to secure their votes. Bass has warned House budget writers that nothing has changed.

"We are all aware of last year's effort and outcome, and I don't see any reason why this year would be different," Bass told the House Budget Committee last month. Using the budget process to pass drilling "is a gimmick that must be resisted," he said.

The issue of arctic drilling has presented Republican leaders with a quandary for years. Majorities in both the House and the Senate support drilling, but the measure does not have the votes to clear Congress for President Bush's signature.

Lacking the 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, Senate leaders for two years now have tried to attach a drilling measure to a budget resolution. By doing so, subsequent legislation to open the arctic would be protected from a filibuster under congressional budget rules.

In the House, a bipartisan majority favors drilling, but when GOP leaders have attached the issue to a broader budget measure, Democratic supporters have abandoned the cause to oppose the budget.

The 2007 budget, which will be drafted by the House Budget Committee the week of March 27, is not likely to include an arctic drilling provision, but it is also not likely to include significant cuts to popular federal programs, a senior leadership aide said.

If House and Senate negotiators produce a final budget blueprint that includes the Senate drilling plan and excludes deep cuts, a sufficient number of House Democrats may be persuaded to support the budget to overcome moderate Republican opposition, the aide said.

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