WASHINGTON - The Incredible Hulk appeared Tuesday on the Senate floor, adorning the necktie of Sen. Ted Stevens - a familiar sign that the veteran from Alaska is pumped for the fight to open part of an arctic wildlife refuge to oil drilling.
But to hear his colleagues tell it, Stevens is more like the Grinch who would steal Christmas - and New Year's, if need be - to collect on his end of a vote-swapping deal he struck with two Democrats 25 years ago.
"A promise made is a debt unpaid," Stevens, 82, is fond of repeating. "This is a debt unpaid to this Senate, to the country, to Alaska."
Back in 1980, the deal went like this: Vote yes on setting aside 19 million acres of wilderness, said Sens. Henry "Scoop" Jackson of Washington and Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, and Congress will support permission to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Stevens agreed. Tsongas and Jackson, meanwhile, died before Congress could grant permission to drill.
Their debt survives, Stevens insists. And he's playing procedural hardball to make the Senate pay up.
"We're going to have to face up to ANWR either now or Christmas Day or New Year's Eve or sometime," Stevens thundered from the Senate floor Tuesday, bucking criticism from drilling opponents furious that he succeeded in attaching the drilling permission to a must-pass bill to fund the military.
Off the floor, Stevens acknowledged he has little to lose by muscling opponents into this uncomfortable choice: Vote for a bill that allows arctic drilling or be seen as blocking money for troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, new aid for hurricane victims and subsidies to help the poor meet what are expected to be record winter heating bills.
"This is the toughest battle I've ever had," Stevens said Tuesday, a senatorial red handkerchief perched in a jacket pocket just inches from his surly alter ego.
The big green guy on the necktie is famous in the Senate for injecting a bit of playfulness into spending fights during Stevens' years chairing the Senate Appropriations Committee. "I've won every other battle with it on, so I'm wearing it for this one," Stevens said.
All-night sessions and a list of stalled bills have left little humor on Capitol Hill as the clock ticks toward the end of the year.
"This is, after all, Christmas!" Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., complained on the Senate floor.
The showdown vote could come as early as Wednesday.
The 1980 law doubled to 19 million acres the size of the Alaska wildlife refuge. Stevens said he supported that law only after Jackson and Tsongas promised him that Congress would later consider allowing drilling on a 1.5 million-acre tract bordering the Beaufort Sea.
Democrats disagreed on whether current senators are obligated to pay what Stevens calls a "debt" owed him by Jackson and Tsongas.
"The Grinch Who Stole the Defense Bill," they called Stevens in a news release put out Tuesday by the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee and Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
"Every Senator in Washington liked the defense bill a lot," they added, channeling Dr. Seuss. "But Stevens, who lives north, in Alaska, did NOT."
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