LES BLUMENTHAL; The News Tribune
Published: December 22nd, 2005 02:30 AM
WASHINGTON – Sen. Maria Cantwell spent the past four days lobbying – lobbying on the Senate floor, in the Democratic cloakroom, on the telephone and anywhere else she could corner one of her colleagues and talk to them about drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
At one point she even put on an Incredible Hulk tie like the trademark tie worn by Alaskan Republican Sen. Ted Stevens when he heads for battle over such contentious issues as ANWR.
It paid off Wednesday as Cantwell beat Stevens, successfully leading the effort to block arctic drilling even though it was in a must-pass defense measure.
“I thought it was going to be close,” the Washington Democrat said in an interview after the vote.
It was. Stevens and supporters of opening ANWR to oil drilling fell four votes short in their effort to force a final vote on the defense spending bill. Wednesday night, Cantwell’s victory was complete when the Senate voted 48-45 to remove the ANWR drilling provision from the defense appropriations bill.
Stevens and his supporters had included the ANWR drilling – along with $29 billion for Gulf Coast hurricane relief and additional money for such popular programs as low-income energy assistance – in a $453 billion defense measure that provided funding for ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Cantwell and other Democrats accused Stevens of “daring” them to vote against funding for the troops at a time of war and of breaking Senate rules by inserting ANWR into the defense bill.
“The American people are watching,” Cantwell said during floor debate. “And my colleagues know that they’ve caught on to the game that is being played here. It is precisely the kind of backdoor maneuvering and legislative blackmail that has shaken their faith in Congress and how we do business here in what we call the ‘other’ Washington.”
Stevens, who has spent 25 years trying to open up ANWR, said he had not broken any Senate rules and took the harsh language from his opponents personally.
Before Wednesday evening’s final vote, Stevens warned the senators voting against him, “I’m going to come to every one of your states and tell them what you’ve done,” telling Cantwell in particular, “I hope the senator enjoys my visits.”
As chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and of the Senate defense appropriations subcommittee, Stevens is not someone to take lightly. He and Cantwell have crossed swords before, not only on ANWR but most recently over a measure introduced by the Alaska senator that could increase tanker traffic on Puget Sound. Cantwell is a member of the Commerce Committee.
Asked whether she was concerned Stevens would retaliate, Cantwell said, “We have already had some skirmishes. But you have to do what is right.”
When Cantwell returned last Friday from observing the Iraqi parliamentary elections, speculation already was swirling that Stevens was going to attach ANWR to the defense bill. “I haven’t had time to unpack,” Cantwell said.
Sunday night, Cantwell conferred on the Senate floor with Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Democratic Whip Richard Durbin of Illinois. They decided they would do everything they could to block Stevens.
Over the past 72 hours, Cantwell said she had spoken with at least 50 of her colleagues, trying to whip up opposition to the Stevens bill. By Tuesday morning, she said she thought she had enough votes. But as the White House lobbying operation cranked up, she said there was concern her support might be eroding.
The looming vote appeared so close that Democrats scrambled to ensure two of their members – Sen. John Corzine, who was recently elected governor of New Jersey, and Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd, who is recovering from knee surgery – would be in the Senate.
As the showdown approached Wednesday, Cantwell said she again thought she had the votes.
In the end, Cantwell picked up support from two Republicans, Sens. Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island and Mike DeWine of Ohio. (Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee joined them for procedural reasons so that he could bring up the drilling issue for another vote.) Four Democrats sided with Stevens: Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka, both of Hawaii.
Other Democratic senators acknowledged Cantwell’s effort.
“Thanks to Maria Cantwell for a great job in leading this fight,” said Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.).
Cantwell’s staff said their boss wouldn’t back down. “She has been whipping and whipping and whipping,” said Cantwell spokeswoman Charla Neuman. “I’m going to get her a whip for Christmas.”
Les Blumenthal: 202-383-0008
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