ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Vermont Sen. James Jeffords' decision to leave the Republican Party would not have a big impact on efforts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, Sen. Frank Murkowski said Wednesday.
''Obviously it makes it tougher when we lose a Republican, but the Republican we had was not going to help me on ANWR,'' said Murkowski, R-Alaska. ''We will still go with ANWR in our committed efforts to get with what this country needs and an energy policy initiated... I can do anything as long as I have the votes in committee.''
If Jeffords switches, Murkowski would be forced to give up leadership of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee at a time when the Bush administration is pushing its energy plan. Bush's plan supports drilling in ANWR.
Committee leadership would go to Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who is opposed to drilling for oil in ANWR. The Democrats' energy bill does not include drilling in the refuge.
Jeffords, a moderate Republican, told associates Wednesday that he has decided to become an independent and align himself with the Democrats, ending GOP control of the Senate. He is expected to make an announcement Thursday.
Jeffords' decision would force U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, to step down as head of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. Stevens has been chairman since 1997 and a committee member since 1972. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., would take over.
Stevens felt it was too early to comment on Jeffords' move, but said through Appropriations Committee spokeswoman Jen Siciliano that he does not anticipate trouble putting forth his agenda if Byrd is at the helm. He said the two have always worked well together.
Randy Ruedrich, chairman of the Republican Party of Alaska, noted that Stevens would still be the committee's ranking minority member.
''Some of our items would not have the same standing, but they would have significant presence,'' he said.
Stevens is credited with helping funnel huge amounts of federal money to Alaska. The Citizens Against Government Waste announced recently that Alaska was once again No. 1 in per capita pork barrel spending of $480 million, or $766 per person -- 30 times the national average.
State Sen. Loren Leman, the majority leader, said Jeffords' decision could have a big impact on Alaska's economy for the next 30 years, particularly if it halted plans to open ANWR.
''Murkowski for us in Alaska has been vitally important dealing with the president's energy plan,'' Leman said. ''We are selling Alaska's vision in exploration and development of the coastal plain.''
He said Alaska will feel the difference if Stevens is no longer Appropriations Committee chairman. The committee recently oversaw $661.3 billion in spending.
''The time he has been there, it has been significant for Alaska,'' Leman said.
State Rep. Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage, said Stevens has been a factor in bringing large amounts of money to Alaska. The money has masked some underlying economic problems, he said.
''I think it is going to be good for the country and not so good for Alaska,'' he said of Jeffords' decision.
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