House GOP leaders agreed last night to strip plans to permit oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and in the offshore continental shelf from a $54 billion budget-cutting measure, probably securing the votes to pass the bill today.
The move is a blow to President Bush, who has made expanded oil exploration a priority since he took office. Lawmakers said the White House applied pressure yesterday to Republicans to save the drilling provisions, especially in Alaska, even wooing conservative Democrats who have steadfastly opposed the GOP budget package.
But the Democrats did not budge, and at least 22 Republicans told the House leadership they would not vote for the sweeping bill unless the drilling provision was removed and they were given assurances that it would not return after House and Senate negotiators hash out a final measure. Even then, several moderate Republicans have said they still would oppose the bill, which would allow states to impose new costs on Medicaid recipients, cut funds for student loans and child support enforcement, trim farm supports, and restrict access to food stamps.
Those measures and others would save $54 billion over five years, but moderates have complained that those savings would be more than lost if the House moved forward with a $70 billion tax-cut extension bill next week.
In exchange for stripping out the energy provisions, however, enough GOP moderates promised their votes last night to all but ensure passage, said Sarah Chamberlain, executive director of the Republican Mainstreet Partnership, the moderate coalition that led negotiations.
"Some of our members will still vote against it, no question about it," she said. "But the [GOP leaders] will have the votes."
Assuming the budget measure passes, its future is still not assured. The moderates' firm stance, especially on Arctic drilling, has put GOP leaders in a bind. A few conservatives may vote against the bill without the drilling provisions.
More important, the Senate negotiators on a House-Senate conference committee will include Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), who have made it clear to House and Senate leaders they will not agree to any final measure that does not include Arctic drilling. One senior GOP aide in the Senate said Domenici and Stevens are willing to bottle up the budget package well into next year if the House does not relent on Arctic drilling.
Because of that, some moderates were reluctant to even negotiate. "I want something more than a feel-good press release that will be operable for no more than a few hours," said Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.).
Chamberlain said the members of her coalition stressed again last night that they would vote against any final agreement that reinstated the drilling provisions.
House leaders have scoured the GOP conference for other votes. They may modify a provision that would restrict access to food stamps for some legal immigrants to win over balking Latino Republicans, said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.). They may also drop a measure that would end the practice of channeling some import duties to companies harmed by illegal trade practices, hoping to win over industrial-district lawmakers.
No matter how much horse trading occurs, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has warned lawmakers that this could be the toughest vote since the Medicare prescription drug benefit passed after an unprecedented three-hour roll call.
"We still have work to do," House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) said before the energy deal was struck.
Stripping Arctic refuge drilling from the bill is a huge victory for environmentalists, who have made the House their last stand in the decades-long fight to keep oil firms out of the region. It is also a rare triumph for House moderates, who have often taken stands contrary to their leaders, only to buckle to pressure.
In the Senate, a similar showdown will occur today, as the Finance Committee moves on a five-year, $60 billion bill that would extend expiring tax cuts from President Bush's first term. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) told Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) she would oppose the measure as fiscally unwise and an unfair boost to the affluent as Congress cuts programs for the poor.
Snowe's opposition would sink the bill. Even if she changes her position, the measure faces an uncertain future on the floor. Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) announced his opposition Tuesday.
"I do not know how anyone can say with a straight face that when we voted to cut spending last week to help achieve deficit reductions we can now then turn around two weeks later to provide tax cuts that exceed the reduction in spending," he said. "That is beyond me, and I am sure the American people."