Republican leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives, bowing to pressure from GOP moderates, stripped provisions that allow oil and gas drilling on the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and offshore in the Lower 48 from a $54 billion budget reconciliation bill late Nov. 9.
The concession came during a House Rules Committee meeting, after days of negotiations and letter-writing in the House as moderate and conservative Republicans campaigned for and against removal of certain provisions from the Deficit Reduction Act.
The sweeping package trims government programs such as Medicaid, student loans and food stamps and alters several regulations in an effort to reduce the federal deficit. The House Resources Committee included ANWR drilling in the bill to generate $2.5 billion in new revenue.
U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, acknowledged Nov. 8 that keeping ANWR drilling in the deficit-cutting bill would be a challenge. “I’m prepared for all the hurdles we will face,” Young told reporters.
Dumping the drilling provisions, however, provided no guarantee the bill would pass the House. Some moderate Republicans, unhappy with the overall legislation, said dropping ANWR drilling would not be a “deal maker.”
“The big problem is that the entire bill has a lot of cuts to a lot of programs in it,” Young said. “There are those who will not vote for with ANWR in it, but there also are those who won’t vote for if ANWR’s not in it.”
ANWR drilling still aliveTwo hours of debate on the bill was scheduled for Nov. 10 but never materialized as House leaders, faced with Veterans Day celebrations across the nation Nov. 11, postponed a floor vote until the week of Nov. 13. They are expected to call a vote on the legislation once they gather the 218 votes needed for passage.
The House action does not, in itself, doom ANWR. The Senate Nov. 3 passed its version of the budget reconciliation package in a 52-47 vote that included a provision for Arctic oil and gas drilling. A smaller measure than the House version, it calls for $35 billion in budget savings.
Given continued support from House leaders, a final budget reconciliation bill is expected to emerge from conference after Thanksgiving, likely with ANWR drilling still in it. Marnie Funk, a spokeswoman for Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said Domenici considers the ANWR provision, “one of the most critical components” in the budget package. “He is committed to coming back to the Senate from the conference with ANWR intact,” she added.
“They have to do whatever they have to do to make sure there is a bill and reconciliation,” said pro-ANWR lobbyist Jerry Hood on Nov. 9, referring to the wrangling among House Republicans. “But ANWR is going to be part of the conference package, regardless.”
Hood is working with Arctic Power to persuade Congress to approve oil and gas exploration and production on 2,000 acres of the 1002 Area of ANWR set aside by Congress for energy exploration decades ago.
Environmentalists have opposed oil drilling in the refuge for years, claiming it would harm the region’s abundant wildlife.
A bipartisan group of House lawmakers repeatedly has approved drilling in the refuge as part of broad energy legislation, only to see their effort blocked each time by the threat of a filibuster in the Senate.
The budget bill is immune from filibuster, but House drilling proponents ran into trouble getting support for the measure. That’s because Democrats oppose the overall budget bill and vow to vote against it as a block. This gave ANWR opponents in the House, basically 25 moderate Republicans, enough leverage to have the provision deleted from the bill.
Led by Rep. Charles Bass, R-N.H., the group vowed to vote against it if ANWR, offshore drilling and certain cuts to entitlement programs remained in the bill.
Western Caucus, others want ANWRStill, removal of the Arctic oil drilling provision could incite a backlash from lawmakers who strongly favor it, which is a big majority of Republicans.
Forty conservative Republicans, mostly members of the Congressional Western Caucus, sent a letter Nov. 7 to House GOP leaders, voicing support for the Resources Committee language, which aimed to reduce the budget deficit by $3.7 billion, mostly with new revenue from ANWR and offshore drilling.
“We need the money, we need the energy and we need the policy changes,” wrote the lawmakers, who also asked to meet with House Speaker Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., to present their support for ANWR and OCS drilling in person. The letter from conservatives, which stopped short of guaranteeing opposition to the bill, was sent as an apparent counteroffensive to the threat from moderate Republicans to vote against the measure unless ANWR drilling was removed. It only takes 14 Republican defections to scuttle a bill, assuming every Democrat opposes it.
House leaders also axed a plan to allow states to waive a 24-year ban on oil and gas drilling along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and open a contested tract off the Florida Gulf coast to leasing. Several Florida Republicans opposed the plan.
In addition, GOP leaders bowed to pressure from Cuban-American lawmakers from the Miami area to loosen new restrictions on food stamps benefits for legal immigrants.
Immigrants who are disabled, over the age of 60 or applying for citizenship would be exempt from proposed rules extending the waiting period for food stamp eligibility from five to seven years.
During a frenzy of lobbying early in the week of Nov. 6, the American Trucking Association, the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council and others sent letters to House leaders, supporting responsible development of ANWR.
The National Petroleum Refiners Association also issued a statement Nov. 10 expressing disappointment in the House decision “to eliminate these key fuel supply-related provisions” from the deficit reduction legislation.
“Events this year have amply demonstrated the importance of increasing available supplies of domestic oil and natural gas for consumers,” the NPRA said.
“It’s ironic (that) this happens the day after (oil company) CEOs were grilled on high prices, especially since these types of exploration investments that can increase supply are a way to ease prices,” said one congressional observer.