WASHINGTON - A group of Senate Democrats led by Maria Cantwell of Washington state has threatened to filibuster a defense spending bill that would authorize oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Cantwell called the bill the wrong energy policy, the wrong budget policy and the wrong defense policy.
"This is nothing more than a sweetheart deal for Alaska and the oil companies that stand to make a $100 billion in profits this year," she said at a news conference with other Democratic senators, including Dianne Feinstein of California, Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and John Kerry of Massachusetts.
Cantwell and other Democrats said they were prepared to use all options - including a filibuster - to try to block the drilling provision.
The Democrats said the provision would allow oil companies to circumvent at least seven federal laws and countless regulations. They also questioned whether it was allowed under Senate rules, since it is not related to the $453 billion defense bill, which funds military programs for the budget year that started Oct. 1.
In a break from Senate protocol, Democrats called on the measure's chief sponsor, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, to withdraw the drilling proposal.
"Don't hold an appropriations bill hostage to put in one of the most passionately controversial issues of the last 40 years," Feinstein said. "We're in a fight now. We'll fight this out. And the crux is whether there are 60 votes" to end a possible filibuster on the bill.
Stevens, a longtime advocate of drilling, called expansion of domestic oil production a matter of national security.
"I'm just doing my utmost to do my job, which is getting ANWR passed," he said.
Democrats sought to portray Stevens as holding up the defense bill, which also devotes $3.8 billion to bird flu prevention and $29 billion to hurricane relief, including funds for reconstructing New Orleans' levees.
The House approved the measure, 308-106, early Monday.
"For all the talk about supporting our troops, this is a really strange way to support them," Kerry said.
"Sen. Stevens says he's not holding up the process, but he is," Cantwell added. "He knows very well that we could all go home today. We could pass these outstanding pieces of legislation regarding defense and other things and be gone.
"But he wants to stay here. If he wants to stay here, then we'll stay here to fight."
All seven House Republicans from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska voted for the defense bill early Monday, while six of 10 Democrats opposed it.
Voting yes on the bill were Oregon Democrats Darlene Hooley and Peter DeFazio and Washington Democrats Norm Dicks and Rick Larsen.
Voting no were Washington Democrats Brian Baird, Jay Inslee, Jim McDermott and Adam Smith, and Oregon Democrats Earl Blumenauer and David Wu.
Dicks said in a news release that the bill includes money for conversion of Trident submarines at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard; new equipment for Stryker brigades at Fort Lewis, Wash.; funding for several key Boeing Co. aircraft and system integration programs, and a 3.1 percent pay boost for military personnel.
Smith, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said he consistently supports defense spending, but opposed the "backroom deal" by GOP leaders that allowed the drilling measure to be included in the bill.
"The contentious matter of whether or not to begin drilling in Alaska has no place in a bill that funds the Department of Defense. The needs of our troops serving in combat should never be subject to such cynical politics," Smith said.
DeFazio, a drilling opponent, said he voted for the bill because it not only contains a pay raise for troops, but also has significant funding for body armor and armored vehicles, as well "a big down payment" on development of an avian flu vaccine and Katrina relief.
"Unfortunately it was tied up into a Christmas tree package, and it was take it or leave it - and you can't leave troops out in the cold," DeFazio said.