Senate Republicans intend to push for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by using a "filibuster-proof" legislative procedure that would prevent Democrats from blocking their move with fewer than 50 votes, according to several Senate GOP sources.
Drilling for that oil is a cornerstone of President Bush's energy plan. He says new technologies will preserve the land and its wildlife.
But environmentalists, who have made protection of the refuge their top priority, say oil drilling there will hurt polar bears, musk oxen, caribou and migratory birds.
Two Senate committee chairmen — Sens. Pete Domenici of New Mexico and Don Nickles of Oklahoma — who would play central roles in the legislative maneuver have discussed the strategy in some detail, the sources said.
Both strongly favor oil development in the refuge in far northeastern Alaska. Domenici would prefer the volatile issue not become entangled in broader energy legislation he wants to pursue later in the year.
Attempts to lift the ban on drilling in the Arctic refuge have been stymied for years by strong opposition from environmentalists. They were thwarted again last year when Democrats vowed a filibuster against the measure, meaning 60 votes would be needed to get the legislation through.
Domenici, who is taking over as chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said in an interview Wednesday that "there will be an effort" to include the refuge provision as part of the annual budget reconciliation process.
A budget reconciliation package, which has the force of law, is not subject to filibuster. Using that process could lead to a showdown vote on refuge drilling by late February or early March.
Nickles spokeswoman Gayle Osterberg acknowledged discussions between Domenici and Nickles over the use of the budget process to push through an Arctic refuge provision. But Osterberg said it's "only an option the senator is looking at."
Depending on which side one is on, the refuge is either a pristine landscape that demands to be protected or the home of the largest remaining pools of domestic oil that need to be developed for energy independence.
Its 1.5 million-acre coastal plain is believed to hold between 3.2 billion and 10.3 billion barrels of recoverable oil. The United States uses about 20 million barrels of petroleum a day and imports a net 10 million barrels daily, mostly from Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Canada.
Leading Senate Democrats — including presidential aspirants Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and John Kerry of Massachusetts, as well as Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle — have vowed to use every means available to keep a drilling provision from passing the Senate.
Those options dwindle, however, if the issue becomes entwined in the budget reconciliation where 51 senators can decide whether the measure will pass or be defeated.
Drilling supporters have repeatedly argued that they have a majority in the Senate to open the refuge to drilling if there is a clear up-or-down vote without the threat of a filibuster. In 1995 Congress gave the green light to drilling as part of a budget reconciliation package, but President Clinton vetoed it.
Dan Gerstein, a spokesman for Lieberman, called use of the budget reconciliation process "a backdoor ploy" that will backfire. Republicans are "making a big leap" in thinking they can get the minimum 51 votes needed, he insisted Wednesday.
Last April, when refuge development was rejected 45-54 as part of an energy bill, eight Republicans and Sen. James Jeffords, the independent from Vermont, joined all but five Democrats in opposing the measure. But some GOP strategists believe some of those anti-drilling votes might have gone the other way if the threat of a filibuster had not doomed the effort from the start.
By some counts there may be as many as 49 senators who currently support drilling in the refuge, though no reliable head count has been conducted. That number could go higher as the growing prospects of war in Iraq, the oil strike in Venezuela and the vulnerabilities of oil imports gain senators' attention.