Drilling ANWR through with the budget

Sen. John Kerry: "It's a sad day when the voices of the American people are ignored and the Senate sells off America's public lands to the highest bidder."

By Katharine Mieszkowski
Published March 16, 2005 8:15PM (EST)

John Kerry must be pretty sick of losing to George W. Bush by a slight margin.

But it happened again in the Senate this afternoon, where by a 51 to 49 vote the Senate rejected an attempt by Kerry, Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine., to strip a provision for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge out of a budget resolution.

Sen. Kerry said in a statement after the vote: "It's a sad day when the voices of the American people are ignored and the Senate sells off America's public lands to the highest bidder."

Opening up the Arctic refuge to drilling has long been a pillar of Bush's energy policy, which favors resource extraction over energy conservation. Environmentalists, who have waged a decades-long battle to keep oil companies out of the refuge, aren't ready to give up quite yet. Instead, they see the beginning of a long budgetary battle that might not end until the fall.

"We deeply regret that 51 Senators voted to pursue special interests instead of energy solutions," said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, in a statement. "This is only the opening gambit in the chess game, and a strong, bipartisan coalition of Senators -- backed by the will of the American people -- will press on with a vigilant campaign to keep the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge where it belongs: wild and free and out of the budget."

He continued: "Today's vote is an abuse of the budget process that undermines the pillars of our democracy. It is fiscally irresponsible and would sacrifice one of America's great natural treasures. This razor-thin vote is by no means a mandate to drill in the Arctic Refuge."

Nor does it mean oil companies should be getting pumped up today to descend on northern Alaska's coastal plain. The initiative is indeed out of the gate: Since budget bills can't be filibustered, the proponents of drilling will now only need 51 votes to get the budget -- and Arctic drilling -- passed in the Senate. But then Arctic drilling will have to survive conference committee. After that, the budget would go back to the House and Senate to be voted on again in a stage called reconciliation. Then, another conference committee, and then a final vote, before going to the President's desk.

Environmentalists point out that the House and the Senate haven't agreed on a budget in the past two years. "There are a lot of moderate Republicans that strongly oppose Arctic drilling in the House," Adam Kolton, director of congressional and federal affairs for the National Wildlife Federation, told War Room. "And the overall budget is not something that is likely to garner the support of many Democrats. So, the Arctic could complicate passage of, if not the budget resolution, certainly the budget reconciliation."

"It's very hard to pass a budget," says Jim Waltman, director of wildlife and refuges for the Wilderness Society, who puts the odds at less than 50-50 that Arctic drilling will make it through all the legislative hoops in the budgetary process and become law. "The Congress has failed to pass a budget two of the last three years. And it's probably even money as to whether they can pass a budget. It's going to be a very close vote on the overall budget resolution, because currently it contains cuts to Medicaid, student loans, veterans healthcare, Amtrak and food stamps."

Even so, the vote in the Senate today is the first concrete step toward transforming one of America's wildest, most pristine places into an industrial site.

Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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