Opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration is one of Washington's longest-running political battles, going back at least to 1987.
And now it looks like the battle will go on awhile longer, even though opening the Alaska refuge, universally called ANWR (pronounced "An-wahr"), is a top priority for President Bush, the Republican congressional leadership and the oil industry.
Faced with near-unanimous Democratic opposition and a revolt by 25 Republicans, the House leadership stripped a provision opening the reserve out of a crucial budget-cutting bill. After four years of openhanded spending, Republican leaders are desperate to show voters that they are serious about reining in the government programs that have grown so fast on their watch.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the "environmentally responsible" ANWR initiative remains a Bush priority: "It's vital to helping us reduce our dependence on foreign sources of energy and helping to reduce high energy prices."
McClellan indirectly put his finger on a contradiction within the ANWR debate. If cheaper, domestically produced energy is the goal, there are other ways of going about it; mainly, lifting restrictions on offshore drilling in the Lower 48 states. It makes sense to go after the most accessible energy supplies first, and oil from ANWR, if it passes, is still a decade or more off.
And there was such a provision in the budget bill, which brought Florida Republicans into opposition. The leadership conceded defeat, but the battle is far from over.
ANWR, however, is still in the Senate version of the budget bill, which differs substantially from the House version, meaning that there will have to be a joint conference to work out the differences. Two key GOP senators, Pete Domenici of New Mexico, chairman of the energy committee, and Ted Stevens of Alaska, powerful enough to keep the pork in the highway bill, have vowed to go to the mattresses over ANWR.
The real development in this is not necessarily ANWR, but that the House leadership was forced to back down.