A solid phalanx of Republican moderates drove House GOP leaders to drop a hotly contested plan to open an Alaskan wilderness area to oil drilling as a sweeping budget bill headed toward a vote Thursday.
A plan to allow states to lift a moratorium on oil drilling off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts was also axed. The decision on the Arctic refuge was a big setback for those who have tried for years to open a coastal strip of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR, to oil development. It was a victory for environmentalists, who have lobbied hard against drilling. President Bush has made drilling in the Alaska refuge one of his top energy priorities.
The House Rules Committee formalized the change late Wednesday by issuing the terms of the debate when the House takes up the budget package Thursday. The decision to drop the ANWR drilling language came after GOP moderates said they would oppose the budget if that language remained. Protection of the Alaska refuge from oil companies has been championed by environmentalists for years. The House repeatedly has approved drilling in the refuge as part of broad energy legislation, only to see the effort blocked each time by the threat of a filibuster in the Senate. The budget bill is immune from filibuster, but drilling proponents suddenly found it hard to get the measure accepted by a majority of the House. That's because Democrats oppose the overall budget bill, giving House GOP opponents of drilling in the Arctic enough leverage to have the matter killed.