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ANWR oil remains off limits following close Senate vote

WASHINGTON - Proponents of oil extraction along the 100-mile coastal shelf off the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge lost a major showdown March 19 as the Senate voted to strip a pro-drilling provision from a larger budget bill.

Five Democrats and eight Republicans crossed party lines to produce a 52-48 vote, one more than needed to protect the refuge. The legislative calendar offers several occasions for another attempt to drill for oil in ANWR, but the recent vote was a stinging setback for Republicans and oil interests, who tend to consider ANWR the answer to America's oil security, and a festive victory for Democrats and environmentalists, who argue that the pristine wilderness area must be protected for future generations. Alaska Native communities are somewhat divided, with most opposed to drilling - most vocally the Gwich'in or "caribou people" whose ancestral land is in the refuge; yet at least one village in the region is on record as favoring it.

Republicans lost an important vote on ANWR in the 107th Congress to filibuster tactics from the Democrats. They resorted to different tactics for the 108th Congress, where developing ANWR reserves figured to be a major part of President Bush's energy policy. It takes 60 votes to break a filibuster, but only 51 - a simple majority - to pass a budget resolution.

So in essence Republicans sought to "filibuster-proof" a provision for ANWR drilling by placing it in a larger budget package. The Republican-controlled Senate Budget Committee made it possible by including $2 billion in the budget from anticipated ANWR oil-leasing revenues. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., sponsored the expected resolution to strip the budget bill of its ANWR provision. A vote for the provision meant drilling in ANWR would remain forbidden; a vote against would raise the odds in favor of opening the refuge to drilling.

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The vote count was in doubt to the last hour, when a key Democrat (Coleman from Minnesota, in the late Paul Wellstone's seat) deciding against defecting.

Even Boxer, in the midst of celebrating a victory that must be among the finest of a solid career in the Senate, warned of continuing Republican attempts to revisit the issue, as promised by prominent Republicans themselves.

But March 19 was a major showdown. With gasoline prices spiking and war with Iraq supposedly pushing oil issues to the forefront of public discourse, Republicans thought the time was right for a vote. But they couldn't swing that vote in a Senate where they hold the majority of seats.

Meanwhile the Associated Press reported, in the March 20 Houston Chronicle, that major oil companies are losing interest in ANWR oil.