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WASHINGTON - House lawmakers opened the way for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and approved $29 billion for hurricane relief during an all-night session Monday bringing their legislative year to a close.
The ANWR provision was attached to a major defense bill, forcing many opponents of oil and gas exploration in the barren northern Alaska range to vote for it. The bill, passed 308-106, devoted money to bird flu preventive measures and $29 billion to hurricane relief, including funds for reconstructing New Orleans' levees.
The last-minute push by Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, to insert oil drilling on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge into a must-pass defense bill threw the Senate into turmoil Monday.
Some senators questioned whether to hold up the legislation in retaliation, while a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans are trying to strip the ANWR provision before the bill passes the Senate.
Stevens spokeswoman Courtney Boone said the provision was directly relevant to the pending defense bill because the Pentagon ranks as the federal government's biggest consumer of oil.
"Sen. Stevens believes ANWR is integral to our nation's defense," she said. "It is imperative for our nation's security that we reduce our dependency on foreign oil."
But several senators said the provision does not belong in the military bill, and said they would be willing to filibuster the measure if Stevens did not back down.
"Let's be very clear about what's happening here. Republicans - Sen. Stevens in particular - are putting oil companies ahead of our troops," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. "This is about keeping faith with our troops and getting the help and support that they need as fast as possible, and it's about preserving the integrity of the legislative process."
An aide to Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who has consistently opposed drilling in the Arctic, said her boss was outraged at Stevens's move.
"Sen. Snowe believes that inserting ANWR into the defense appropriations bill discredits the integrity of the process," spokeswoman Antonia Ferrier said. "The American people will see this for what it is, a cynical approach to legislating that will further erode public confidence in the federal government."
It remains unclear whether Stevens - who has said hurricane-stricken Louisiana's "levees will be paid for when we drill in ANWR" - will succeed in his latest gambit. He has the support of energy companies and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who was negotiating Monday with Democrats on whether to hold a vote as early as Tuesday on the matter.
In a letter Friday, the American Petroleum Institute's president, Red Cavaney, urged lawmakers to act now on drilling in the refuge. Cavaney said the land could hold 5 billion to 16 billion barrels of recoverable oil and could ease the current energy crunch, but he also noted that "ANWR will not provide the United States with all its domestic energy needs."
Although some House Republicans also objected to the provision - 21 voted against a rule bringing the defense bill to the floor in an effort to revote - 16 Democrats crossed party lines to approve the rule, and the defense spending bill passed the House by a wide margin in the final vote.
While House lawmakers were heading for the exits, the end was not in sight for the Senate, which can't leave for Christmas until it deals with spending bills and the deficit-cutting package and overcomes a filibuster on renewing the Patriot Act. A Senate vote on the deficit reduction bill could come Monday.
A $453 billion defense spending bill became the flypaper for issues that have eluded congressional compromise. Those included, along with the ANWR provision, $29 billion in federal aid for victims of Katrina and other storms; an additional $2 billion to help low-income families with home heating costs; and $3.8 billion to prepare for a possible bird flu pandemic. Of the defense money, $50 billion is for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Democrats and moderate Republicans have for years blocked drilling in ANWR, and its inclusion in the defense bill exposed that bill to a possible filibuster in the Senate that can only be broken with a 60-vote majority.
Democrats complained that they were being forced to accept ANWR drilling with their vote on military spending and hurricane relief.
Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, denounced the ANWR provision and another last-minute addition sought by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.: liability protection for vaccine makers in most circumstances, coupled with a compensation fund to individuals harmed by the shots they receive.