WASHINGTON - The chairman of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee wants a national energy bill to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
But he will not agree to such language unless he's assured of 60 votes in the Senate, one of his top aides said Wednesday.
That means ANWR will be one of the last items resolved in a joint House-Senate conference committee created to work up a final energy bill, according to Alex Flint, majority staff director for Sen. Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican.
A conference committee is expected to hold its first meeting this week if House and Senate leaders appoint members. The Senate team will be seven Republicans and six Democrats. The House team will be between 50 and 60 members, also with a majority of Republicans.
Flint told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner and other media that Domenici will not know whether to seek ANWR development until the rest of the bill takes shape. At that point, a judgment will be made about whether to push for it.
That judgment likely will not be made until late this month, at the earliest. Domenici and his House counterpart, Rep. Billy Tauzin, a Louisiana Republican, want to present a final bill to their colleagues by Oct. 1.
Domenici's stand is a change from earlier this year, when he vowed to keep ANWR development language out of the energy bill as it passed through the Senate. Though Domenici supports such development, any such language would draw a fatal filibuster, he said at the time.
It takes 60 votes or more to shut down a filibuster and supporters have fallen far short of that in recent years.
When asked what would entice senators to vote for an ANWR-opening measure, he said, "There will be a lot of good things in the bill."
Flint said he expects the conference committee to easily adopt language speeding approval of a natural gas pipeline down the Alaska Highway.
However, federal tax credits pushed by the Alaska congressional delegation to encourage gas-line development are still under contention. President Bush and House leaders both oppose the incentives, Flint said. The White House has been involved in discussions leading up to the conference and has persisted in opposing the financial incentives.
"That is something on which the president has strong personal feelings and the House has strong feelings," Flint said.
"Our position is to support the Alaska delegation," Flint said of Domenici's views.