WASHINGTON - The Senate blocked an attempt to open an Alaska wildlife refuge to oil drilling Wednesday, foiling an attempt by drilling backers to force the measure through Congress as part of a must-have defense spending bill.
It was a stinging defeat for Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, one of the Senate's most powerful members, who had given senators a choice to support the Alaska drilling measure, or risk the political fallout of voting against money for American troops and for victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Democrats accused Stevens, the senior Republican in the Senate, of holding the defense bill hostage to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"It took a lot of guts for a lot of people to stand up," Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., said after the vote.
Republican leaders fell four votes short of getting the required 60 votes to avoid a threatened filibuster of the defense measure over the oil drilling issue. The vote prompted GOP leaders to huddle in private over their next move.
The vote that was 56-44.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist for procedural reasons cast a vote with ANWR opponents, so that he might be able to resurrect the issue for another try. But Democrats said they expected the defense bill to be withdrawn and reworked without the Arctic refuge provision.
The 43 senators who voted against refuge drilling - all but four Democrats as well as GOP Sens. Mike DeWine of Ohio and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island - "are intent and unyielding" and not expected to budge should Frist try for another vote, said Lieberman.
Stevens called the refuge's oil vital to national security and bemoaned repeated attempts over the years by opponents using the filibuster to kill drilling proposals.
Democrats, conversely, accused Stevens of holding hostage a military spending bill that includes money to support troops in Iraq and $29 billion for victims of Hurricane Katrina.
"Our military is being held hostage by this issue, Arctic drilling," fumed Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic leader. The Nevada Democrat said the Senate could move quickly to pass the defense bill once the refuge issue was resolved.
"We all agree we want money for our troops. ... This is not about the troops," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., a strong critic of disturbing the refuge in northeastern Alaska by oil development.
During the vote, Stevens, 82, who had fought to open the refuge to drilling since 1980 and is the most senior Republican in the Senate, sat unsmiling in a chair midway back in the chamber, watching his colleagues vote. When it became apparent that he had lost, he briefly talked with Frist, presumably over what move should be taken next. He briefly shook his head, a signal of his disappointment.
"We need ... to open up the small area of the coastal plain (of the refuge) for oil exploration and development," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. She called making the oil available a matter of national security by reducing U.S. reliance on oil imports.
Senators determined to protect the refuge from development found it difficult to oppose the politically popular defense bill, which has money for troops in Iraq, relief for Katrina hurricane victims and help for low-income families to pay energy bills.
"Destroying this wilderness will do very little to reduce energy costs nor does it do very much for oil independence," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
The Alaska refuge's 1.5-million-acre coastal plain is believed to contain about 10 billion barrels of oil and possibly a reserve comparable to the Prudhoe Bay fields 65 miles to the west. Oil companies have pumped 13 billion barrels from Prudhoe since 1977.
But drilling opponents long have argued that ANWR's oil should not be exploited because of the coastal plain's fragile ecosystem and its wildlife. While the region looks bleak during its long winters and oil can be seen seeping from some of its rock formations, the coastal strip also is the calving ground for caribou and home to polar bears, musk oxen, and the annual influx of millions of migratory birds.
"There are literally hundreds of thousands of Americans following this issue," William Meadows, president of the Wilderness Society, said Tuesday, adding that there has been "an outpouring of angst and concern" over Stevens' attempt to link hurricane relief money, low-income energy assistance funds and money for the Iraq war to push the drilling measure through a reluctant Senate.
Stevens and others maintain the refuge's oil can be extracted using modern techniques without damaging the environment.