Senators seeking a compromise on the Alaska lands bill said yesterday they think they have found it and will call up a substitute bill today. The Senate hopes to act on it before adjourning tomorrow for an 11-day recess.
After nearly two weeks of off-the-floor talks, Sen. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.), who has been leading the effort the move the Senate Energy Committee's bill closer to House-passed bill that environmental groups prefer, told the Senate that negotiators believe they have found a resolution.
Tsongas said he has agreed not to offer his five strengthening amendments but instead to back a substitute compromise. However, all details of the length, substitute had not been nailed down yesterday and Tsongas reserved the right to offer his amendments if the compromise falls apart.
A principal goal of the negotiations has been to fashion a bill the House would accept without a conference that would be subject to a filibuster by Sen. Mike Gravel (D-Alaska). He has made it clear he prefers no bill to any of what he call the "lockup Alaskan resources" bills that are under discussion.
Rep. Morris Udall (D-Ariz.), chairman of the House Interior Committee and chief sponsor of the House bill, issued a carefully worded statement expressing pleasure that "significant progress" is being made toward agreement on a bill that can pass the Senate.
Udall emphasized that House members have not been parties to the Senate negotiations and do not know the details. Udall also said the Alaskan land issue is so large and complex that the differences between the two bills probably should be resolved in a House-Senate conference. But he did not rule out the possibility that if the Senate bill is acceptable, the House could adopt it and send it directly to the president.
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who has been in on the negotiations, said he could not support the compromise. But he added that considering the overwhelming strength Tsongas showed on preliminary votes when the bill was taken up by the Senate two weeks ago, Tsongas and his supporters had been patient in considering Stevens' requests.
But Gravel, who did not attend the negotiations, had no such kind words for Tsongas or Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.), chairman of the Energy Committee, who is also supporting the compro-wise. They snapped at each other throughout the afternoon, Gravel charging an attempt to railroad the bill through the Senate and Jackson accusing him of dilatory tactics and trying to kill the bill. At one point, after Tsongas offered Gravel some of his time to speak and Gravel made a scathing response, Tsongas said: "Everytime I try to be reasonable I end up pulling a stiletto out of my back."
The bill, called by President Carter the environmental vote of the century, would assign varying degrees of protection to more than 100 million acres of Alaskan land, designated as wilderness, wildlife refugees, and national parks.
One of the most controversial issues has been whether to permit exploratory drilling for oil in a wildlife refuge in the northeast corner of the state. The compromise is expected to allow seismic exploration on the Arctic coastal border of the refuge.