WASHINGTON - Senate Democrats are maneuvering for a quick vote on oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, confident they can turn back one of the Bush administration's top energy priorities.
A proposal that could lead to allowing oil companies to develop the 1.5 million-acre ANWR coastal plain in northern Alaska was introduced Tuesday by Alaska's two senators.
A group of Democrats immediately made clear they intend to filibuster the amendment. With Republicans believed to be short of the 60 votes needed to end it, Democrats moved to force a vote on the filibuster by Thursday.
Sen. Frank Murkowski accused Democrats of steamrolling the bill, noting the maneuver to force a vote came "after only three hours of debate."
Administration officials acknowledged Tuesday they have been unable to peel away additional support among anti-drilling senators. The White House this week explored the possibility of avoiding a floor vote in fear of losing badly. A poor showing could hurt in negotiations with the House, which approved an ANWR drilling measure as part of its energy bill last summer.
Murkowski and fellow Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens insisted that the Senate had to confront Arctic drilling as part of the broader energy bill that is close to completion.
Trying to gain additional support, Stevens offered a proposal Tuesday to funnel more than $8.1 billion from expected oil lease sales in the refuge to programs that would help the ailing steel industry, steelworkers and coal miners.
Democrats called the move an act of desperation.
"That's right, we're looking for votes," said Stevens. He added, however, that the allocation would help steelworkers facing hard economic times in an industry in decline.
But Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat whose state has thousands of steelworkers, rejected the idea, giving political cover to other Democrats.
As debate opened, Murkowski and other pro-drilling senators hoped recent turmoil in the Middle East and rumblings from Iraq about cutting off oil shipments might sway some senators to their side.
It's better to open the refuge to drilling "rather than rely on the likes of Saddam Hussein," Murkowski said.
Iraqi President Saddam's government announced last week that it was stopping its oil exports for 30 days or until Israeli troops have withdrawn from Palestinian territories.
The measure also stops short of opening ANWR to drilling. Instead, the amendment would defer to the president, allowing him to determine development is important to the nation's economy and security.
"The amendment we offer today does not open ANWR per se," Murkowski said.
Stevens argued the push to block ANWR development was the work of "environmental extremists" who ignore the tens of thousands of jobs drilling would create.
"We're here because an elite few have decided that Alaska should be their playground," said Stevens.