From: Bennett Roth, Houston Chronicle
Published November 10, 2005 12:00 AM

Moderate Republicans Balk at Refuge Drilling

WASHINGTON — A House Republican push to pass federal budget cuts is being stymied by opposition from moderate Republicans to a provision that would allow oil and natural gas drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.


In a letter delivered to the House leadership on Tuesday, 25 GOP lawmakers requested that the refuge drilling approval be removed from the budget bill that is designed to help defray the costs of hurricane relief.


The provision "would undermine the protection of all public spaces by valuing the worth of the potential resources contained within these lands over their conservation value," the letter said.


The House GOP leadership has tentatively planned a vote for Thursday on $54 billion in cuts to entitlements, including reductions to social programs such as Medicaid and food stamps.


The measure includes $3.7 billion in additional federal revenue from opening theAlaskan refuge and giving coastal states the authority to approve offshore oil and gas drilling.


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The offshore item has caused concern among some GOP lawmakers from Florida who think it could open up drilling along the state's Gulf Coast.


House Majority Leader Roy Blunt, R-Mo., conceded Tuesday that the budget measure would fail if all the GOP lawmakers who opposed drilling vote against it.


He said the GOP leadership was hoping to persuade some moderate Republicans to back the budget bill because it includes additional funds for the low-income assistance heating program.


Heating assistance is politically appealing to lawmakers from the Northeast as the winter season approaches and heating costs remain high.


"Members when it comes time to vote often have to balance where they are on one issue with where they might be on a handful of other issues," Blunt said. "I'm not prepared to give up on ANWR yet."


However, Alissa Southworth, a spokeswoman for Rep. Charlie Bass, R-N.H., said the congressman still would not vote for the budget cuts as long as the drilling provisions remained.


If the House leadership decides to delete the drilling policy to win moderate votes, it risks losing the support of other Republicans who have called for more domestic production.


This week, 41 House Republicans expressed concern to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., about voting for the budget package if it contains no opening of the refuge.


"This is not the right time to back off good energy and economic policy and leave our constituents at the continuing whim of foreign governments," said their letter, signed by Texas Republican Reps. Louie Gohmert of Tyler, Sam Johnson of Plano and Pete Sessions and Jeb Hensarling of Dallas.


Opening the refuge for drilling has been a top priority for the Bush administration, which in past years has been frustrated by opposition in the Senate rather than in the House.


This year the Senate narrowly approved the refugedrilling provision as part of a $36 billion budget-cutting measure.


In the past the House has been able to approve the drilling provision with the help of about 30 Democrats.


But this year the Democrats are united in their opposition to the budget bill because of cuts to social programs and because it is being paired with another measure they oppose, the extension of income tax cuts.


If the refuge drilling measure dies in the House, it could be revived as part of a compromise budget measure with the Senate.


To see more of the Houston Chronicle, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.HoustonChronicle.com


Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News


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