Senate Republicans are one step closer to fulfilling a long-time goal of allowing oil and gas drilling in an Alaskan wildlife refuge after Democrats failed Thursday night to stop it.
The Senate rejected a Democrat-authored amendment to its 2018 budget resolution that would have removed language allowing oil and natural gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The Democratic amendment, part of a marathon series of votes known as "vote-rama," failed by a 52-48 vote.
That means the budget resolution, which passed soon after, contains instructions for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to recommend policies to save $1 billion over the next decade, to be served by drilling in the refuge.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who in 2005 voted against allowing drilling in the refuge, provided a decisive vote this time, refusing to vote with Democrats who tried to block it. Senate Susan Collins, R-Maine, who also voted against drilling in the refuge before, did the same Thursday night, siding with Democrats. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., voted with Republicans.
Republicans in Congress have long pushed to allow energy exploration in a 1.5 million-acre section of the Alaskan refuge, where billions of barrels of oil lie beneath the refuge's coastal plain. But Democrats have blocked those efforts, because they consider the refuge as one of the wildest places left in America, and worry about harming native habitat.
"The notion that we, tonight, after 60-plus years, would give up what is a biologically important area, a critical habitat for polar bears, a breeding ground for caribou, migratory birds, and over 200 species -- for what? For oil we don't need?" Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the author of the Democratic amendment, said during floor debate Thursday.
This year, the path for Republicans to permit drilling is easier than ever. That's because the Senate plans to use the process of reconciliation to pass its budget blueprint so that it can be approved by a simple majority, requiring 50 votes, rather than the 60 votes needed to overcome a Democratic filibuster.
The 19.6-million-acre refuge was created under President Dwight Eisenhower in 1960. In 1980, Congress provided additional protections to the refuge but set aside a 1.5 million-acre section known as the "1002 area" for future drilling if lawmakers approved it.Democrats have managed to block those efforts for decades. The Republican-controlled Congress in 1995 passed a budget allowing refuge drilling, but the measure was vetoed by former President Bill Clinton.
The House this month passed its 2018 budget resolution, which contains instructions for the House Natural Resources Committee to approve legislation to reduce the government's deficit by $5 billion over 10 years, expected to be filled by allowing drilling in the wildlife refuge.
The Trump administration also supports drilling in the refuge. Last month, the Interior Department lifted restrictions on seismic studies to probe how much oil is under the refuge.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the main proponent of opening the refuge in her home state to drilling, views energy development there as a prime revenue source that can be used to help offset Republicans planned tax cuts.
"We need to be expanding energy development in our federal areas," Murkowski said Thursday night. "This helps us reduce our deficit, to build more wealth in this country, to strengthen our national security, our competitiveness."