ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Even senators who support oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge say the issue is dead, but Sen. Frank Murkowski insists there's good news this week in the selection of the committee charged with crafting the final energy bill.
''What I want to tell Alaskans is that the issue is still very much alive,'' the Alaska Republican said.
When the energy bill was on the floor of the Senate last month, Murkowski tried to add a provision opening the refuge to oil development. He needed 60 votes to proceed but got only 46.
''The 54 votes against drilling made it clear this is a dead issue in the Senate,'' said David Wade, spokesman for Sen. John Kerry, a prominent opponent of ANWR drilling.
Kerry, D-Mass., is also a presumed candidate for president, and Murkowski regularly accuses Kerry of joining the ANWR fight just to grandstand in the national spotlight.
Thursday, Kerry's spokesman accused Murkowski of pretending ANWR is still alive to boost his gubernatorial campaign back home.
''Clearly there's an agenda driving these kind of events above and beyond the reality of what's going to happen on the floor of the U.S. Senate,'' Wade said.
Though it's not in the Senate energy bill, ANWR drilling is in the version the House passed last year. Both versions will be sent to a House-Senate conference committee to work out the differences, a process expected to take months, with no guarantee that any bill will emerge.
The Senate appointed its conference members Wednesday: eight Democrats, eight Republicans including Murkowski, and independent Jim Jeffords of Vermont.
All of the Republicans favor drilling in the refuge.
The object of Murkowski's insistent optimism is that one of the few Democrats to vote for drilling, Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana, was also appointed to the committee. That raises the prospect of a 9-8 vote for drilling in the refuge, not counting the House committee roster, which hasn't been announced.
The bill, though, would still have to go back to the full Senate. A number of Democrats -- among them Kerry and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, both of whom will sit on the conference committee -- have vowed to block any bill that would open ANWR.
It's also not clear that Breaux, although he favors drilling in ANWR, would vote for it in the conference.
When asked about it Thursday, Breau's aides released a one-sentence response saying he will vote for an agreement ''that can pass both the House and the Senate.''
He said earlier in the week that if the conference adopts the House version on ANWR, the bill won't get past the Senate.
''The votes aren't there,'' he told the Capitol Hill journal Daily Monitor.
Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, a Republican, said the Senate's Democratic leaders may have made a ''serious mistake'' by appointing nine senators who favor ANWR drilling and only eight who oppose. Or, he said, maybe the Democrats are setting the stage for a dramatic filibuster once the bill comes back to the Senate.
''The permutations and combinations of the majority mind right now are like a spider web,'' he said. ''We can't figure out what they're trying to do, and I don't think they can either.''
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