All four Senate Democrats eyeing White House bids are jockeying to become the leading voice against drilling in Alaska’s frozen tundra — and in turn the choice of environmental voters in next year’s presidential primaries.
Support from the environmentalists, while not lucrative, is considered key in early primary states such as New Hampshire, because these activists engage in grassroots politicking and vote on primary day.
While environmentalists have dozens of priorities on their legislative wish lists, preventing natural gas and oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR, is their top priority, environmental lobbyists and Democratic strategists said.
“For the environmental community this is equivalent of a Supreme Court nominee,” said a veteran Democratic campaign operative, who asked not to be named. “ANWR is to the environmental community as choice is to the choice community.”
Even though the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary are about 10 months away, the “environmental primary” could be decided by mid-April, some Democrats suggested.
The Senate Budget Committee is expected to address the ANWR issue in the 2004 budget resolution this month when the Republican-led panel will pass a proposed budget that would extend a protection against a filibuster to an upcoming ANWR bill.
While not directly referring to ANWR, the resolution would direct the Energy and Natural Resources Committee to produce legislation opening up ANWR for drilling.
To help bolster their argument, Republicans will engage in a public relations campaign stressing the need for the United States to wean itself off of foreign oil, citing long-term negative economic consequences should the Congress block domestic gas and oil exploration.
“ANWR is a national security issue,” said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas). “For our economy to be stable, we need a stable energy supply.”
Senate Republicans are expected to meet with K Street power brokers Thursday to discuss policy and political strategy on this issue, GOP sources said.
The debate over opening up the wildlife refuge could occur at the same time the United States is engaged in a war with Iraq. But war with this oil-producing nation is unlikely to persuade Democratic Sens. John Edwards (N.C.), John Kerry (Mass.), Bob Graham (Fla.) and Joe Lieberman (Conn.) from abandoning their opposition to drilling in ANWR.
“I believe it is a false patriotism that tries to suggest to us that as a matter of national security and energy independence we should drill in the pristine wilderness of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” said Kerry, who along with Lieberman has been the most outspoken critic of the drilling plan.
Still, Republicans accused Democrats with White House aspirations of pandering to the left for political gain: “It is not a question of questioning someone’s patriotism,” said Lee Johnson, a GOP lobbyist with Winston & Strawn. “But on the eve of war, I think opponents of ANWR ought to consider the long-term energy and security interests of our country first and Democratic presidential primary politics second.”
Since there is an unlikely chance Democrats will be able to lead a very public filibuster on the issue, the four Senators are going to have to find creative ways to gain attention.
At a news conference Wednesday, Lieberman unveiled legislation that would designate the area being targeted for exploration as a federal wilderness area. It came the day after the National Academy of Sciences and Engineering released a report saying that exploration on Alaska’s North Slope had a negative impact on the area’s environment.
A press release from the Connecticut Democrat’s office read “Lieberman Leads Coalition in Introducing Bipartisan Bill To Protect Arctic From Oil Drilling.”
Kerry is one of five Senators co-sponsoring the bill. For his part, Kerry prominently displays a Feb. 11 speech he delivered at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston on the “environment and energy independence” on his Senate Web site.
Top Republican aides say Democrats will have one opportunity to stop the measure from passing, when they are allowed to offer a simple motion to strike the ANWR language from the budget resolution. They need 51 votes to remove the language. As of now, it is not clear who will offer this motion.
“The jockeying is going to be intense for this one,” said a senior Senate Democrat not affiliated with any of the campaigns. “Each and every one of these guys is going to engage in a race to try and outdo the other as the strongest defender of the environment.
“It is going to be comical at times, but I can’t imagine the headache [Senate Minority Leader Thomas] Daschle [D-S.D.] is going to have over this,” the Democrat said.
These four Democratic candidates are also likely to draw scorn from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the powerful labor union that supports drilling on the basis that it would create more jobs.
Still, environmental lobbyists are pleased the four Senators oppose the drilling plan even if it means they are competing with each other to gain press exposure.
“The real advantage of having these leaders who have presidential aspirations is to really draw stark attention to this issue,” said Melinda Pierce, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club. This is “the premier environmental vote they will be taking.”
“It just kind of reflects how important the environment is for Americans,” said Athan Manuel, a lobbyist for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. “These are important issues for a sizable chunk of the electorate.”