A Bush win would benefit Alaska congressional delegation

Posted: Thursday, November 09, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- If Texas Gov. George W. Bush emerges as winner of the ballot cliffhanger in Florida, it would create the most hopeful future Alaska has enjoyed in Washington, D.C., since statehood.

His election would open opportunities for the state's all-Republican Congressional delegation to work on a number of natural resources issues with a like-minded Republican in the White House.

But even if Bush prevails, Tuesday's election could prove bittersweet for the state because of Republican losses in Congress -- particularly in the Senate where the chamber may be evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.

That 50-50 division would not cost Alaska's two senators their committee chairmanships.

Sen. Ted Stevens will remain head of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, and Sen. Frank Murkowski will continue to chair the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Yet their power to get controversial development issues, such as drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, through the Senate could be weakened despite any help from the White House.

In the House, where Rep. Don Young will be changing committee chairmanships next year, the margin tightened to a four-vote Republican advantage.

The prospect of a narrow Senate Republican majority worried Stevens on Tuesday night. He said a two-seat majority might be too small to give the party the control it needed, adding that it ''will be a problem if it's only one vote.''

As it turns out, however, a one-vote margin may be the best of the options now.

If Democrat Marie Cantwell succeeds in unseating Washington Republican Sen. Slade Gorton, then the Senate would be split 50-50. Only a Gore victory after the Florida recount could change that margin, because Joseph Lieberman would have to give up his Senate seat to be sworn in as vice president, and Lieberman would be replaced by a Connecticut Republican.

Still, at no time since statehood has Alaska had a politically unified congressional delegation in positions of power when a president of their party occupied the White House.

Among the top cooperative efforts likely to emerge if Bush takes office would be legislation to drill in the arctic refuge, a longtime state priority because the refuge's 1.5 million-acre coastal plain holds such promise of a giant oil find.

Drilling became a national campaign issue this year after Bush, a former Texas oilman, endorsed drilling as a way to find new domestic reserves to bring down skyrocketing gasoline and home heating oil prices.

Murkowski said Tuesday night that enacting drilling legislation ''is going to be one of the first bills we are going to try to move out.''

But Congress could be a much tougher sell on that issue next year even without factoring in the Republican's shrinking majority.

In April, for example, the Senate voted 51-49 against striking a provision in a budget bill to permit drilling.

Two Republicans who voted with the Alaska delegation in that vote -- Sens. Rod Grams of Minnesota and John Ashcroft of Missouri -- were defeated Tuesday.

Cam Toohey, director of the pro-drilling lobby Arctic Power, said he's not worried.

''The election just makes it a little more interesting,'' Toohey told the Anchorage Daily News. ''ANWR votes always have been close. But the White House still will be Republican, our congressional delegation still is in positions of power and oil is still selling for $35 a barrel.''

But if there were a Bush victory, the pressure would intensify on President Clinton to declare the refuge's coastal plain a national monument. While such a declaration wouldn't prevent Congress from approving a drilling measure, it would make it even more of a fight with environmentalists and Democrats.

''We are going to continue pushing for monument designation,'' declared Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League.

Shogan said she and other environmental activists have talked directly to Clinton about such a designation, ''and he has said he likes the idea.''

But Shogan worries about another political shift next year.

Young, who now heads the House Resources Committee that shares jurisdiction with Murkowski's panel over drilling, will not hold that seat next year.

Because of term limits on committee chairmen, Young will have to give up that seat and is likely to become chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The new committee assignment is a much bigger job, putting Young in charge of legislation affecting airports, highways and ocean transportation.

Shogan said conservationists are worried that Young will dangle highway funding in front of wavering House members to win support for some controversial Alaska issues.

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