WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans intend to push anew to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, this time using a legislative procedure that would prevent Democrats from blocking their move with fewer than 50 votes.
The plan has been discussed in detail by two key Senate committee chairs -- Sens. Pete Domenici of New Mexico and Don Nickles of Oklahoma -- both of whom would play a central role in the maneuver, Senate sources said.
Attempts to lift the ban on oil development in ANWR were thwarted 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 chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said in an interview Wednesday that ''there will be an effort'' to include the refuge provision in the annual budget reconciliation process, which is not subject to filibuster.
That process could lead to a showdown vote on refuge drilling by late February or early March, according to sources familiar with the process.
Nickles spokesperson Gayle Osterberg acknowledged discussions between Domenici and Nickles over the use of the reconciliation process for the refuge provision. But Osterberg said it's ''only an option the senator is looking at.''
Depending on which side one is on, the Arctic 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. Drilling for that oil is a cornerstone of President Bush's energy plan; he says new technologies will preserve the land and its wildlife.
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. Leading Senate Democrats -- including presidential aspirants Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connec-ticut and John Kerry of Massa-chusetts, as well as Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle -- have vowed to use every means available to keep a drilling provision from passing the Senate.
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 spokesperson for Lieberman, called use of the budget reconciliation process ''a backdoor ploy'' and said the Republicans are ''making a big leap'' in thinking they have even the minimum 51 votes needed.
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 now support drilling in the refuge. That number could go higher as the growing prospects of war in Iraq and the vulnerabilities of oil imports gain increased visibility.
Republicans are expected to use the same budget reconciliation process to try pushing a tax cut package through Congress this spring based on Bush's $674 billion, 10-year economic growth proposal.
''I don't know any way that would get it done any quicker,'' White House budget chief Mitchell Daniels told reporters Wednesday.
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