U.S. Senate Republicans' plan to open part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil production ran into a procedural problem this week — though whether it's easily fixed or risks derailing the proposal depends on whom you ask.
The two Alaska senators pushing the ANWR proposal both say the problem can be resolved through simple legislative tweaks. Conservation groups argue that it amounts to a major hurdle to the plan's inclusion in Republicans' big tax overhaul.
The problem stems from arcane Senate rules connected to the GOP bid to lump the ANWR legislation in with that overhaul, and the committee that drafted the ANWR proposal. It's "very weedy" stuff, U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, told reporters in a conference call Thursday.
Senate Democrats opposed to Arctic drilling argued that environmental reviews referenced by the ANWR plan, as drafted by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, actually fall under the authority of a different committee, Sullivan said.
The Senate's parliamentarian — a sort of legislative referee charged with judging whether bills meet technical requirements — agreed, multiple news outlets reported Thursday.
The two sides of the caustic ANWR fight disagree on how quickly that problem can be fixed.
Who's right? From the outside of Senate offices, it's really hard to tell.
That's because the the fight over the ANWR provisions is taking place out of public view, according to multiple Senate aides who described it Thursday.
The parliamentarian's opinions are issued privately to Senate offices, and senators wouldn't release them when asked Thursday — making it difficult to judge how serious the problem is, and to understand its details.
Stories from Washington, D.C., reporters cited information from anonymous Senate aides, and described the issue in different, conflicting ways.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, says the problem is not actually a problem.
"We are finishing up the last of that and expect to have a curative amendment, if you will, as part of the process going forward," she told the D.C. publication Roll Call on Wednesday.
That amendment hadn't emerged by Thursday night. A spokeswoman for Murkowski, Nicole Daigle, said the senator wasn't available to answer additional questions, and she declined to provide any details of how the amendment would solve the problem.
Opponents of opening ANWR, meanwhile, asserted that the fix won't be straightforward.
"I think there's a lot of questions right now about whether they'll be able to fix it," said Lois Epstein, Arctic program director for the Wilderness Society. She added that the problem with the refuge drilling provisions stemmed from the fact that Republicans are trying to advance their plan through a strictly controlled budget process, rather than through stand-alone legislation.
Alaska lawmakers from both parties have sought to open the refuge to oil production for decades. Those efforts have taken on new urgency as the state's economy has fallen into a recession and as oil production on the North Slope has diminished, reducing the flow through the trans-Alaska pipeline.
Drilling boosters have one of their best opportunities in decades, with Republicans in control of both chambers of Congress and the presidency.
But they still face a muscular array of environmental groups who say that the refuge's ecological value outweighs the value of the oil that could lie beneath it, and who don't want to develop more fossil fuels from the Arctic, which is already warming at double the rate as the rest of the world.
Drilling opponents, led by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., held a Washington, D.C., rally Thursday, with some attendees wearing full-body caribou and polar bear costumes.
Will Alaska get its $1 billion in lease revenue?
Meanwhile, a new report from a left-wing D.C. think tank says the broader, Republican-backed tax overhaul could jeopardize the $1 billion expected to flow to Alaska from leasing the refuge's coastal plain — also known as the 1002 area — for oil drilling.
[Related: U.S. Senate committee moves ANWR legislation one step closer]
Alaska, according to the legislation authorizing the drilling, would get half of the resulting federal revenue. That's some $1.1 billion over a decade, according to projections by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office — which Murkowski and others have touted as a boon to the cash-strapped state.
But the new report from the liberal Center for American Progress calls those revenues into question.
It says that because the GOP tax cuts would add $1 trillion or more to the federal debt over the next decade, the overhaul would trigger a 2010 budget law requiring the tax cuts to be balanced by huge, across-the-board spending reductions to specific programs — including the one that distributes federal oil, gas and coal revenue to western states.
Such spending reductions would affect a range of federal activities, not just the oil and gas payments; they would also cut budgets for Medicare, a crime victims fund and a program that stabilizes farm income and agriculture prices.
Those programs have support across the political spectrum, and Republicans argue that it's unlikely lawmakers would allow them to take effect.
"No such thing is going to be triggered automatically," U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., told reporters earlier this month.
But one of the report's authors said the 2010 budget law — passed by Democrats who wanted to block Republicans from passing a future tax cut that increases the federal deficit — still presents a possible hiccup for the tax overhaul.
The CBO's director, Keith Hall, warned of the potential for the across-the-board reductions in a November letter to House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland.
"It definitely, at the very least, creates complications for the unpaid tax cuts," said Jenny Rowland, Center for American Progress' research and advocacy manager.
Daigle, the Murkowski spokeswoman, responded to a request for comment on the report by pointing out that Congress has never allowed spending reductions tied to the 2010 law to take effect. She suggested that a story should instead focus on the benefits of the tax overhaul and ANWR legislation backed by Murkowski.
"We find it deeply disappointing that the Anchorage Daily News is focused on cuts that are extremely unlikely to ever materialize, rather than the significant long-term benefits that opening the 1002 area and tax reform will bring to Alaskans," Daigle wrote in an email.
Republicans have "escape hatches," as the Center for American Progress refers to them, that could stop the across-the-board spending cuts.
Republicans can't include provisions waiving the 2010 law as part of the tax overhaul, since that bill is being advanced through a special budget process called reconciliation that allows it to pass the Senate with 50 votes, rather than the 60 normally required to stop a filibuster.
But because the spending cuts wouldn't take effect immediately, Congress could have time to pass separate legislation exempting the tax overhaul from the 2010 budget law. Unlike the tax plan, though, the legislation would need 60 votes to pass the Senate — meaning that the 52 Republicans would need support from at least eight Democrats.
Such a proposal, CAP argues, could lead to a standoff, since some conservative Republicans might actually want the across-the-board reductions to take effect, while Democrats could try to block the legislation and blame the GOP for the spending cuts.
Asked about CAP's report, a spokesman for the Senate Budget Committee's chairman, Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., said in an email that Republicans would try to stop the across-the-board cuts from taking place — though he didn't say specifically how.
If the 2010 law is triggered, "Senate Republicans will work to prevent cuts, which has been done on a bipartisan basis in the past for major legislation like this," wrote the spokesman, Joe Brenckle, who was once an aide to former Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski and the late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens.
"All we are talking about is various scenarios — none of which are currently accurate as the bill has not even been voted on by the full Senate and could still change on the floor during the amendment process," Brenckle said.