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DeLay: ANWR a ‘Precedent’

On Tuesday, during a closed-door session of the House GOP leadership, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) said that the battle in Congress to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration is a fight over whether energy exploration will be allowed in similarly sensitive areas in the future, a statement that surprised even Republicans in the room.

According to several GOP sources, DeLay insisted that backing down on ANWR would be a mistake for those who support the measure, popular with the oil industry, although DeLay also acknowledged that the provision was likely to fare poorly in the Senate because of opposition from Democrats and GOP moderates.

“It’s about the precedent,” DeLay told the assembled Republican leaders while making several references to the “symbolism of ANWR,” according to GOP sources.

DeLay even joked that a victory on ANWR would allow the oil industry to push into other pristine areas, “except for the coast of California.” Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.), the GOP Conference secretary and one the most hard-line Republicans in the House, then responded that drilling off California was “OK with him.”

Several GOP insiders were startled that DeLay contradicted the Bush administration line on the issue. Officials have stressed repeatedly that the battle over ANWR was not symbolic, but rather about the resources that could be tapped there.

“I was surprised to hear that position stated so openly,” said a Republican source who attended the meeting. “He came right out and said it. There wasn’t any beating around the bush.”

But a senior GOP lawmaker who also heard DeLay’s comment cautioned, “No one was taking it seriously” because party leaders know the provision has little chance of surviving a House-Senate conference on the energy bill. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) has said he’ll pull the provision if it threatens passage of a comprehensive energy package.

Until now, backers of drilling in ANWR like DeLay have been very careful to wrap themselves in a mantle of national security and energy independence for the United States, while also insisting that any drilling there would leave only a small “footprint” amounting to 2,000 acres in a huge area of more than 1 million acres.

DeLay and other GOP leaders are also betting that Farm Belt Democrats in the Senate, especially Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), won’t kill an energy bill that includes increased federal support for ethanol, the corn-based fuel alternative popular with farmers across the Midwest.

Jonathan Grella, a DeLay spokesman, said DeLay’s comments have to be viewed in the overall context of the ANWR debate.

“Exploring in ANWR would bring us close to energy independence,” said Grella, who added that “what the Congressman spoke to [during the GOP leadership meeting] was the political impact of this very contentious issue.”

“Those on the extreme left would agree that ANWR is a contentious issue and the stakes are high for the future of energy issues,” said Grella.

But Dan Lavery, a spokesman for the Sierra Club, an environmental group opposed to drilling in ANWR, said DeLay’s position has repeatedly been rejected by a large majority of Americans.

“If Mr. DeLay wants to turn this into a symbolic effort on whether Americans want to expose special areas to oil drilling, there’s poll after poll showing that they do not,” said Lavery.

Daschle has also vowed that he would not back down on his opposition to the ANWR provision.

“If ANWR is in the energy conference, that legislation will not pass,” Daschle told reporters earlier this week.

“I had a conversation with Sen. Domenici and have indicated to him that more than 45 Senators have expressed themselves on this issue. More than 45 Senators have indicated that ANWR will kill what is otherwise perhaps the best prospect for a comprehensive energy bill in years. What a tragedy it would be, and that was my message to Senator Domenici and he’ll have to take that into account.”

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