The Alaska congressional delegation is pressing hard for the state's interests in appropriations bills being debated in Washington, D.C., according to U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens. But some items on the state's wish list are looking less likely than others, he said.
Congress has passed bills for defense appropriations and military construction, but the energy bill that decides the fate of state projects such as opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and construction of a gas pipeline still is in negotiations.
Stevens said provisions for opening ANWR were in the Republican-controlled House version of the bill but were removed in the version put out by the Democratic-led Senate.
"As long as the Democratic Party opposes ANWR it's not going to happen," Stevens said at a Juneau Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Friday.
Calling it the No. 2 issue next to ANWR, Stevens said, the delegation is working to get two-thirds of the necessary funds to finance a natural gas pipeline from the North Slope, which would bring an estimated 50 million cubic feet of gas to market.
"It is a project that even if we got it started now, it would not be finished until 2011. I'll be a little bit younger than Strom Thurmond, but I would like to see it done in my lifetime," said Stevens, the fifth-ranking member of the Senate. South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, 100 years old, is the oldest Senate Republican.
In a press conference following the luncheon, Stevens said the energy bill has stalled in the Senate due to attempts by Democrats to tie fuel efficiency standards in automobiles to gasline funding.
Another provision by Democrats includes increases in the amount of federal money to companies to make ethanol, a fuel that produces less pollution than gasoline.
"Ethanol is not a cost-effective form of energy," Stevens said. "It's only effective as an additive to gasoline that is already refined from natural petroleum."
The United States now imports 60 percent of its oil, Stevens said, noting that if ethanol were a cost-effective substitute, the government would expand its production.
But Stevens acknowledged that some in Congress oppose subsidizing the gas pipeline.
Funding for the Department of Homeland Security still was held up in negotiations before Congress recessed last week. Stevens said he added an amendment requiring that 10 percent of all money appropriated for homeland security research and development go to the Coast Guard.
Stevens and his Alaska Republican colleagues Rep. Don Young and Sen. Frank Murkowski originally opposed making the Coast Guard part of the Department of Homeland Security. They were concerned the placement would diminish the Coast Guard's missions of fisheries enforcement, pollution control, and searches and rescues.
The Bush administration and Congress agreed to amend the bill so the Coast Guard would have the same status in the Department of Homeland Security that it now has in the Department of Transportation.
In peacetime, the Coast Guard reports to the Secretary of Transportation and the president; during times of war it falls under the Department of Defense.
Stevens said the Alaska delegation also is working to decrease the time before Coast Guard vessels are upgraded.
"The question is can we get them the equipment quickly enough to reduce some the costs of their traditional missions so they can take on some additional responsibilities under the Department of Homeland Security," Stevens said.
Stevens said if Murkowski wins the governor's race in November, Alaska's congressional delegation will have a leg up on newcomers entering the Senate.
"His replacement will become a member of the Senate during this year and he will have seniority dating back to the group selected in 2000," Stevens said.
This will give the freshman senator, who would be appointed by Murkowski, a better shot at committee assignments over other new Washington lawmakers. Stevens said that would help the delegation to continue pushing for state projects.
Congress will return to Washington in November to hash out differences in the 11 remaining appropriations bills that await the president's signature.