WASHINGTON - Senate Republicans are having trouble getting a majority to support drilling in an Arctic wildlife refuge, although the administration hopes Iraq's call for an oil embargo may rally lawmakers to the pro-drilling side.
If support doesn't pick up, some Republican senators have considered abandoning a Senate vote on drilling in the refuge, arguing that a poor showing in the Senate could jeopardize getting the measure into a final energy bill during negotiations later this year with the House.
The House energy legislation, approved last summer, already includes opening the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil companies. But Senate Democrats have vowed to block an attempt to put a similar measure into the Senate bill and Republicans are far short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a Democratic-led filibuster.
A Senate vote on ANWR drilling had been expected as part of a broader energy bill this week, but now the prospects are uncertain, said several congressional sources, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, made clear through a spokesman Monday that he still intends to press the case in the Senate and is preparing an amendment to the energy bill that would open the refuge in northeastern Alaska to oil development.
President Bush, meanwhile, sought to generate support for drilling in the refuge, telling labor and business leaders at the White House on Monday that the oil there "is needed more than ever" in light of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's announcement that he will suspend oil exports for 30 days.
"He's going to try to cut off energy supply to affect the United States. I mean, what more reason do we need than to have good energy policy in the United States to diversify away from somebody like him?" Bush said.
Bush's energy secretary, Spencer Abraham, struck a similar tone, saying: "This week more than any other we have the proof that the need for legislation to permit the United States to produce more oil at home and reduce our dependence on foreign sources of supply."
Senate opponents to drilling argue that oil would not flow from ANWR for a decade and even then do little to curb oil imports that are expected to continue to grow in the years ahead. A recent Energy Department study concluded imports would decline only slightly over what they would otherwise be if the refuge's oil were made available.
At peak production, ANWR would supply about 1.9 million barrels a day, according to the Interior Department estimates. The United States today uses 19 million barrels a day, 57 percent of that from imports.
Republican attempts to sway senators to support drilling have gotten nowhere close to the 60 votes needed to break a Democratic-led filibuster, according to sources on the pro-drilling side.
At least six Republicans have gone on record opposing drilling in the refuge and so far only four Democrats have publicly said they favor oil and gas development there. Some pro-drilling senators worry they won't get a majority.
To try to get wider support, some Republican senators privately have suggested scaling back lease sales to only the northwestern third of the 1.5-million-acre ANWR coastal plain. Geologists believe 80 percent of the oil may be located in that one-third area.
On Monday, the Interior Department produced an analysis that concluded that if oil development were limited to the northwestern one-third of the plain, there would be minimal impact on the calving activities of Porcupine caribou, one of the issues most concerning to environmentalists.
The new analysis was ordered after a government study, examining 12 years of research, concluded that caribou and other wildlife on the coastal plain were at risk and might be adversely affected by oil development.