House Approves Arctic Drilling

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House lawmakers opened the way for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as one of their last acts of an all-night session Monday bringing their legislative year to a close.

The House also narrowly passed a plan to cut deficits by almost $40 billion over five years in legislation hailed by GOP conservatives as a sign their party was returning to fiscal discipline and assailed by Democrats as victimizing medical and education programs that help the poor.

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, also included money for hurricane relief and bird flu preventive measures.

The deficit measure, passed 212-206, carried an extension of expiring welfare laws and repealed a program that compensates companies hurt by trading partners who "dump" their exports in this country.

The votes came before sunrise as bleary-eyed legislators struggled to wrap up their work for the year. Democratic anger over the process was put aside briefly as lawmakers greeted Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, who returned to vote after suffering a heart attack Thursday.

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.

Also in the bill is the compromise language worked out between Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and the White House banning the cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of prisoners in U.S. custody.

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.

"There is something especially outrageous about the willingness of the majority party leadership to allow the Defense Department bill, in a time of war, to be held hostage to totally unrelated special interest items," Obey said.