The long overdue debate in the United States Senate on oil and gas exploration on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge finally began in the first week of December. Along the way, unfortunately, it was temporarily mixed in with other issues.
Alaskans can be forgiven for asking: "What really happened?"
What happened is, we got ANWR to the Senate floor for the first time since President Clinton vetoed it in 1995. This represents substantial progress because, now that ANWR has come before the Senate, it's not going to go away. Next time, it will come up as part of a debate on national energy policy, not tied to cloning or railroads.
The House has done its job and approved ANWR exploration. President Bush is in favor of it. Vice President Dick Cheney - who casts tie-breaking votes in the Senate - is for it. Organized labor, led by Alaskans Jerry Hood and Mano Frey, is for it. Veterans are for it. Major Hispanic, Jewish and Black organizations are for it. The business community is for it. Seniors are for it. The Inupiat people who live on the coastal plain are for it. A huge majority of Alaskans are very much in favor of it. A bipartisan majority of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is in favor of it. And I firmly believe a bipartisan majority of the full Senate is for it.
We've built a real and substantial base of support for it, but alas, the Senate Democratic leadership has obstructed a fair and open debate on ANWR at every turn.
There is a high degree of intensity surrounding the issue. From the Senate floor, I stated that Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's action in shutting down the Energy Committee to prevent the mark up of an energy bill was outrageous and reprehensible. On the Dec. 8 edition of CNN's Evans, Novak, Hunt and Shields program, Robert Novak, referring to my comments, said I had spoken of him "as I have seldom seen a committee chairman talk about a Senate majority leader." Sen. Daschle replied that Republicans, when we were in the majority, did the same thing "time after time after time." But in my over 21 years in the Senate, I cannot remember any majority leader, Republican or Democrat, abandoning a standing committee in this manner.
So, after 14 years, 50 bills, 50 hearings and untold hours of work, the effort to get an energy bill through the Senate faces more hurdles. Sen. Daschle has shut down Energy Committee work on an energy bill and substituted his own blatantly partisan, pie-in-the-sky bill. It is a bill that does nothing to address the reality of modern-day America and the energy demands of its economy.
Meanwhile, we remain increasingly dependent on the likes of Saddam Hussein for the oil we need to prosecute the war against international terrorism. We buy 1.2 million barrels of Iraqi oil every day, while Saddam uses $20 million a day of your hard-earned money to pay his Republican Guards and to develop weapons of mass destruction to aim at our ally, Israel.
Still, the Senate Democratic leader opposes an honest debate and vote on ANWR. He knows that a majority of senators wants environmentally sensitive exploration in ANWR, but he will demand a super-majority of 60 senators before we can vote.
Tom Daschle has built a stone wall around this issue. But, clearly, oil and gas exploration in ANWR's coastal plain is an idea whose time has come. It's time for people to demand that it become a reality.
How to do this? We must realize that the Democrats' stone wall is not going to come tumbling down because Alaskans want it down. The Democrats' stone wall is going to come down when Alaskans, South Dakotans, New Yorkers, New Mexicans and people from across the country demand it. And the way to do that is for Alaskans to get on their phones, onto their e-mail, or pick up their pens and start writing letters.
We all have friends and associates around the country. Contact them. Let them know what's going on. Tell them to contact Tom Daschle and other Senate Democrats. Tell them you're tired of wondering if Saddam or OPEC are going to let you buy enough gasoline to drive to work tomorrow, or next week, or next year. Tell them you don't want the price of CDs and DVDs to double for no good reason. Tell them that, while you're willing, even eager, to conserve energy, you don't want your lifestyle twisting itself into contorted and unrecognizable shapes because inexpensive and readily available oil has suddenly become a thing of the past.
Tell them Americans are tired of being caught between Iraq and a hard place. Tell Tom Daschle that the time for ANWR exploration has come.
ANWR is more alive than it's been in years. Working together, we can and will make it happen.
Frank Murkowski, a Republican, is a U.S. senator from Alaska.