By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 21, 2005; 2:42 PM
The Senate today failed to pass a major defense appropriations bill after a Democratic-led bloc stymied it with a filibuster in an effort to force removal of a controversial provision on oil drilling in an Alaskan wildlife refuge.
With 60 votes needed to overcome the filibuster and cut off debate on the bill, its backers fell short by four votes. The tally on a motion to invoke cloture so the Senate could move to a vote on the bill itself was 56-44.
The Senate showdown came over a provision allowing oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), a measure that was added to the $453 billion fiscal 2006 defense appropriations bill by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). The bill includes money to support U.S. troops in Iraq, as well as $29 billion to help victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) charged on the Senate floor, "Our military is being held hostage by this issue, Arctic drilling." Calling the provision "another gift to special interests," he said, "It's time we said no to an abuse of power."
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) said that even though the bill provides vital defense funding, he was joining the filibuster on principle to prevent attachments such as the drilling provision. "If we yield to this tactic on ANWR," he said, "next year it will be someone else's pet project attached to the defense spending bill."
The provision would allow oil companies to drill in a coastal plain that covers about 1.5 million acres of the wildlife refuge, which encompasses a total of about 19 million acres in northeastern Alaska.
More than 10 billion barrels of crude oil are estimated to lie under the refuge, and President Bush has repeatedly urged that they be tapped to help ease U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
But opponents say oil drilling is incompatible with environmental protection in the refuge. Moreover, they say, the impact on the U.S. fuel supply would be minimal and would not be seen for years.