Sen. Ted Stevens predicted Tuesday that Republicans would secure a clear, if slim majority in the U.S. Senate on Election Day, enough to pass legislation next year approving the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
Speaking to packed room at the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce luncheon, Stevens noted recent congressional action paving the way for a future natural gas pipeline project. He also listed sizable appropriations earmarked for the Kenai Peninsula in several bills awaiting passage when Congress reconvenes Nov. 16.
His remarks also touched on the state of the war in Iraq, a conflict he called "worse than anticipated," but opining that U.S. forces could begin withdrawing by late next year. He said he expected elections to go forward in the war-torn country in January as planned.
Stevens began his remarks, however, with a bit of levity, recalling the first time he'd run for the U.S. Senate and lost to Ernest Gruening in 1962. Stopping at an airport bar, he was approached by a constituent who insisted Stevens shouldn't have lost. Stevens said he acknowledged the support and what he took to be the implied sympathy.
"But you shouldn't have lost!" Stevens recalled the man saying. "I voted for you six times myself!"
On ANWR, Stevens said five members of the U.S. House of Representatives who have supported opening the refuge in the past are running for senate seats. He predicted that at least three would win, helping to achieve the Republican majority needed. He did not specifically dwell on the tight race facing incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
"I think ANWR, we will get it next year," he said. "When we come back next year, I think we will have the 51 votes we need to get ANWR going."
He cautioned that it won't happen without a fight, but the current price of oil could help push the vote Alaska's way.
"I think there is a great oil and gas future ahead of us if we can just find some way to get around the incessant suits we get from extreme environmental people that continue to block our development," he said.
Despite Congress' slow pace with bills this year, provisions in recent legislation have provided tax incentives to oil companies that could lead to construction of a natural gas pipeline, he said.
"I believe the gas pipeline will proceed. We know the producers have met with the governor and that that is their indication also," Stevens said.
"This pipeline will create 400,000 jobs, take Alaska's gas, which has been stranded on the North Slope since oil was discovered, and decrease our nation's dependence upon imported natural gas."
He predicted "enormous development" in Alaska in the near future, though Alaskans may not realize it.
Within several bills awaiting action in Washington are appropriations proposed for projects and agencies in Alaska, including several on the Kenai Peninsula.
"These are bills in various stages of process, but they contain substantial amounts of money for Alaska," Stevens said, noting some $1.5 billion in a pair of defense bills and about another $1 billion for non-defense agencies.
He listed amounts expected to go to the peninsula if the bills pass. Included were $3.1 million for dead tree removal, $1.14 million for Kenai air traffic control upgrades, $300,000 for the Cook Inlet Tribal Council reforestation program, $1 million for restoration of the Kenai River, and $1 million for rural runway lighting part of which will go to Soldotna.
He also noted efforts to secure further funding for the Denali Commission.
Following his prepared comments, Stevens discussed Iraq.
"This is a situation that is worse than anticipated. It's obvious," he said.
He places some blame on the Turkish government for having withdrawn authorization for American military forces to use its territory as an avenue into northern Iraq, which would have produced a two-pronged invasion. Instead, the bulk of the allied forces came in from the south. Stevens said one result was that Saddam Hussein's elite forces just disappeared.
"They didn't really fight. They just took off their uniforms and faded into the countryside," he said.
About three quarters of Iraq is safe he said, quoting Iraqi interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, but a quarter has become a haven for insurgents and terrorists.
Noting the recent massacre of 50 American-trained Iraqi military recruits by insurgents, Stevens said America faces a terrible enemy.
"It's a militant Moslem unit under the control of madmen who are clerics of that portion of the Moslem religion," he said. "This isn't the Moslem religion. I personally know many Moslems and they are peaceful people. But this group is the wild men of that part of the world, and it will take some time to subdue them."
Stevens said that according to briefings he's had, reductions to U.S. forces could begin by the middle of next year.
"I believe that our major engagement will be over by a year from now," he said. "That's my prediction."
In recent weeks, fueled in part by campaign rhetoric, but also by sober looks at the military situation on the ground in Iraq, there has been open talk, even predictions, that a draft would be instituted next year.
President George W. Bush has insisted in campaign appearances that that is not the case. Stevens said the same Tuesday in Soldotna.
"There will never be any draftees in our Army unless we have a declared war by Congress of an international nature," he said.
He said the war in Iraq was one "that someone had to fight," and that the decision to do so was a correct one. As chair of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, Stevens said he got the same briefings the president got.
"I firmly believe there are weapons of mass destruction," he said.
Though none have been found, he did point to the discovery of high-performance fighters sealed in Visqueen and buried in the desert.
"We are still looking for the weapons of mass destruction, which are chemical and biological weapons. I'm told that a package of those would fit in any family's bathtub," he said.
"This country is the size of California, and we're looking for a few bathtubs. God knows if we will ever find them or not."
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