Wednesday, December 21, 2005

COM: The Alaska Drilling Decision

Faith in humanity slowly being restored, part II.

Senate Blocks Military Bill Over Arctic Drilling
By CARL HULSE, The New York Times, December 21, 2005


WASHINGTON, Dec. 21 - The Senate voted today to block a Pentagon spending bill that would open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, preventing Congressional Republicans and President Bush from achieving their long-sought goal of allowing exploration in the Alaskan wilderness.

In the second major legislative showdown of the day, drilling supporters fell four votes short of the 60 needed to cut off debate on the $453.3 billion spending bill as the Senate voted 56-to-44 to end a filibuster. Forty-one Democrats and one independent were joined by two Republicans in opposing the drilling plan.

Democrats argued that Senate Republicans, at the behest of Senator Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican who has long championed the oil drilling, were twisting the rules of the Senate by adding the drilling initiative to a military bill. Senate leaders immediately began exploring ways to save the underlying Pentagon spending bill before Congress comes to a close in the next few days. As it stands now, temporary authorization for Pentagon spending expires on Dec. 31.

Earlier today, with Vice President Dick Cheney breaking a 50-50 tie, the Senate approved a $40 billion budget-cutting measure that Republicans hailed as evidence of their determination to control federal spending.

"Victory No. 1," Senator Bill Frist, the majority leader, declared after the budget measure was passed.

But Democrats won a procedural victory on the budget bill that forced it backed to the House of Representatives, delaying final approval and depriving House and Senate Republicans of a clear-cut win. The House has left the capital for the holidays and it is unclear when lawmakers could take up the minor changes.

The decisive vote by Mr. Cheney, who cut short an overseas trip to be on hand, was needed because five Republican senators joined all 44 Democrats and an independent in opposing the budget plan, which Democrats argued cut too deeply into social programs.

"This bill targets Americans with the greatest needs and the fewest resources," said Senator Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who is the Senate minority leader.

Republicans said the budget bill would save $39.7 billion over five years. As the oil debate began, Senator Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia and a fierce defender of Senate rules, urged his colleagues to block the military spending bill, even though he is a longtime friend of Senator Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska and the champion of the oil drilling plan.

"I love this man from Alaska, I do," he said after clutching a bound book of Senate rules. "But I love the Senate better."

Today's votes are part of a flurry of activity in the last few days before the Senate leaves for the holidays. Several senators have said that the votes on several major issues, like Arctic oil drilling and the spending cuts, would determine whether the Congressional session ends on a triumphal note for Republicans, or whether Democrats will celebrate blocking their efforts.

"It is make it or break it," Senator Mel Martinez of Florida said Tuesday as he left a closed lunch where Republicans, led by the majority leader, Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, had laid out strategy for the next 24 hours.

The last few days at the Capitol have been chaotic, with an exhausting all-night session in the House that ended just before sunrise Monday and then, after adjournment there, two days of bitterness in the Senate over process as well as policy.

The two parties have done battle over the fate of the USA Patriot Act, the broad antiterrorism law. Charges and countercharges are flying over the Bush administration's secret domestic surveillance program. Democrats continue attacking the Republicans for making what the minority deems draconian cuts in social programs.

Veteran legislators say that preholiday theater is not unusual and that Congressional leaders often use the calendar to try to enact measures that would never pass otherwise.

"I have been here 27 years, including, I think, two of those years on Christmas Eve," said Senator John W. Warner, Republican of Virginia. "I actually observed fisticuffs between two of the most respected Republican senators ever to serve in this body on Christmas Eve."

As for Mr. Frist, he said he had no problem with working this close to the holiday.

"I used to be a surgeon," he said. "People got sick all the time on the 20th, the 21st."

One piece of legislation for which no votes are yet scheduled is the USA Patriot Act. Sixteen provisions of the law are set to expire at the end of the year, and an effort to extend them was blocked by a filibuster last week. Senate leaders traded accusations Tuesday over who would be held responsible if the provisions lapsed.

"The Patriot Act expires on Dec. 31, but the terrorist threat does not," Mr. Frist told reporters, echoing President Bush. "Those on the Senate floor who are filibustering the Patriot Act are killing the Patriot Act."

Democrats, who were joined by four Republicans in blocking the measure, say it is the majority that is at fault, for refusing to agree to a temporary extension while disputes over civil liberties safeguards are worked out.

Republican leaders also say they might have been able to finish earlier had they not lost considerable time in September dealing with Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. But the approach of a holiday break is often an occasion for legislative action, as the time pressure builds and lawmakers relent on some fights.

Richard A. Baker, the Senate historian, recalled that in 1982, exasperated senators of both parties joined just two days before Christmas to shut off a filibuster by a handful of conservatives against an increase in the federal gasoline tax.

After the lopsided vote, Senator George J. Mitchell, Democrat of Maine, recalled for his colleagues Cromwell's exhortation to Parliament in 1653: "You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing; in the name of God, go."


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