ANCHORAGE - An energy bill will head to the Senate floor without a provision to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling for oil.
Congressional Democrats said Tuesday the Senate Energy Committee will invoke a Senate rule to suspend marking up energy legislation for the current session of Congress.
In a press release, Energy Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat, said ending committee consideration of an energy bill came at the request of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat. The move is an attempt to avoid a contentious issue that could divide Congress, Bingaman said.
Instead of a bill that undergoes the normal committee review and amendment process, Bingaman will propose "comprehensive and balanced" energy legislation that can be added to the Senate calendar for action prior to adjournment, he said.
The move provoked a strong response from Sen. Frank Murkowski, an Alaska Republican and the ranking minority member on the committee, who had been optimistic about the chances for adding an ANWR provision during committee deliberations.
"This action by the Democrat majority has taken the nation's energy security and made it a partisan issue, locking out Republicans and the entire committee process," Murkowski said.
"The Senate leadership has abandoned the bipartisan approach established in the House when Republicans and Democrats came together to pass their energy bill," he said.
The House bill contained a provision to open ANWR to drilling.
Murkowski said the Senate leadership's action was inappropriate when the country is seeking unity on energy policy. He said the country's increasing dependence on foreign energy helps facilitate terrorism.
"Already our economy has been disrupted," Murkowski said. "We cannot afford to let our nation's energy security be disrupted as well."
Democrats said they were the ones trying to avoid divisiveness.
"It has become increasingly clear to the majority leader and to me that much of what we are doing in our committee is starting to encroach on the jurisdiction of other committees," Bingaman said.
He said with the few weeks remaining in the session, it is obvious how difficult it would be for various committees to finish their work on energy-related provisions.
The Senate leadership wants to avoid quarrelsome, divisive votes in committee, Bingaman said.
"At a time when Americans all over the world are pulling together with a sense of oneness and purpose, Congress has an obligation at the moment to avoid those contentious issues that divide, rather that unite us."
Supporters of opening ANWR could amend the bill once it reaches the Senate floor.
Opponents of ANWR development have pledged to filibuster a Senate energy bill if it contains a provision to allow oil exploration on the refuge. Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, said in August he would filibuster a bill if an ANWR provision was not included.
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