WASHINGTON -- To win the centerpiece of his energy plan, President Bush will have to change some minds among seven Republican senators who staunchly oppose oil drilling in Alaska's pristine Arctic wildlife refuge.
That's in addition to penetrating an almost solid wall of Democratic opposition and overcoming intense lobbying from environmentalists who have made protection of the Arctic refuge their top priority, people on both sides of the issue agree.
''We've got a lot of selling to do,'' the president recently acknow- ledged .
Bush, a former oilman, has made dril-ling in the now off-limits Arctic National Wildlife Refuge the focus of a campaign to boost domestic energy production, arguing that drilling and wildlife preservation can go hand in hand.
But some members of the president's own party have made clear their distaste for exploitation of the Alaska refuge.
Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire is among the lawmakers bracing for a high-powered pitch from the White House. He says he won't be swayed.
''I'm trying to change their minds,'' he said in an interview.
A Republican energy bill, to be introduced next week in the Senate, will include as its core proposal the development of the refuge's 1.5 million acre coastal plain where geologists believe 11 billion barrels of crude oil may be waiting.
Democrats already have indicated they're prepared to filibuster, if necessary, any legislation that includes the refuge issue. ''It's kryptonite and will kill the energy bill,'' predicts Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
Congress set aside the refuge's coastal plain for protection 41 years ago and oil companies have been lobbying to gain access to the tundra just east of the Prudhoe Bay oilfields ever since. Environmentalists view it as a national treasure not to be disturbed, citing the annual migration of caribou and numerous migratory birds to the refuge's coast along the ice-filled Beaufort Sea.
While Bush's victory in November gave new impetus to lifting the congressional ban, Senate elections the same day made it more difficult.
Six Republicans and one Democrat who favored development of the refuge either lost their bids for re-election or retired. Two of them -- Attorney General John Ashcroft and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham -- are now part of the Bush Cabinet. They were all replaced by Democrats opposed to drilling.
On the other hand, all but one of the eight anti-drilling Republicans are back, showing little sign of shifting sides. Along with Smith, they are Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, James Jeffords of Vermont, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois and Richard Lugar of Indiana.
The lone GOP drilling opponent who lost -- Delaware's William Roth -- was defeated by a Democrat with the same stance. Only in Nevada and Virginia did the pro-drilling forces make gains with the election of two GOP senators -- John Ensign and George Allen -- who are likely to be in their camp.
Three Democratic senators have made clear their support for developing the refuge: Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka, both of Hawaii and John Breaux of Louisiana.
Last year, pro-drilling forces won a narrow 51-49 symbolic vote on drilling in the refuge as part of a budget bill. With the changes produced by last November's election, that vote now would be 54-46 against drilling.
Public attitudes, according to various surveys, indicate voters prefer the Alaska refuge be protected. A recent Associated Press poll showed 53 percent of those responding were against oil drilling there, while 33 favored development.
''I don't think the case has been made,'' said Collins, the Maine senator, in an interview. ''We need to look at other ways to increase production and conserve more energy and develop alternative energy sources.''
Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, who will guide energy legislation through the Senate and for years has been a staunch advocate for drilling in the refuge, says he thinks he can win some anti-drilling senators to his side.
He's circulating invitations to senators to join him in a trip there, perhaps as early as next month. If they see it for the barren land that it is, they might be convinced oil can be drilled there using modern technology without doing environmental harm, he argues.
Snowe says she might take Murkowski up on the invitation but doesn't believe the trip will change her mind. ''There are other steps that can be taken,'' she says.
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