WASHINGTON - A Senate showdown over an Alaska wildlife refuge is expected within weeks as Republicans plan to use a budget measure to overcome strong opposition to allow oil drilling in the protected area.
It will be first big environmental issue facing the new Congress.
Republican leaders indicated Tuesday that they plan to press the issue of drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as part of a so-called budget reconciliation process, which cannot be subject to a Democratic filibuster - a tactic that has blocked the refuge's development in the past.
Given the wider GOP majority in the Senate, Republicans said they think they have the best chance yet to open the presumably oil-rich but environmentally sensitive Alaska refuge to oil drilling, which has been one of President Bush's top energy priorities.
Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said it was reasonable to assume ANWR, as the refuge is commonly called, would be part of the budget measure.
"The president asked for it, and we're trying to do what the president asked for," Gregg said Tuesday after meeting privately with Republicans on his panel.
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the Energy Committee and a strong supporter of refuge oil development, said he was "very optimistic we're going to get the ANWR provision in this budget."
Gregg's panel was expected to begin work on the budget measure next week. Senate floor action - including a vote on the ANWR provision - was likely before the congressional Easter recess March 19.
Supporters of pumping the refuge's oil believe they have the 51 votes needed to get the measure through as part of the budget process. Opponents aren't ready to concede that, although they remain certain that GOP leaders don't have the 60 votes needed to overcome a certain filibuster by opponents if ANWR drilling is in separate legislation.
A small group of senators and key administration officials is flying to Alaska's North Slope this weekend to try to dramatize their argument that the refuge can be developed in an environmentally sound way, using modern drilling technology. They will visit the refuge and North slope oil drilling activities west of the protected area.
The group includes Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who has been there a number of times; the new energy secretary, Samuel Bodman, making his first trip; James Connaughton, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality; and GOP Sens. Domenici, John Thune of South Dakota, Jim Bunning of Kentucky and Robert Bennett of Utah.
All are strong supporters of allowing companies to develop the millions of barrels of oil believed to lie beneath the tundra along the refuge's northern coastal plain.