The Democrats' Next Slip Could Be On Alaskan Oil

Democrats' efforts to keep Clarence Thomas off the U. S. Supreme Court flopped. The party fell short in its attempt to give new jobless benefits to victims of the recession. Now, the latest stab at confrontation with the White House, the attempt to craft a Democratic energy policy, may be undone by the party's old bugaboo: disunity.

The stumbling block to a united stance on legislation promoting U. S. energy independence is a proposal to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, 2,400 square miles of Alaskan wilderness. Supporters of drilling argue that tapping the refuge's reserves is vital to reducing U. S. dependence on imported oil. But environmentalists maintain that the oil isn't worth the environmental risk.

Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee Chairman J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) tried to make the measure more palatable to his fellow Democrats by shifting the emphasis toward conservation. But he didn't go nearly far enough to satisfy liberals and environmentalists. "Why have a bill that purports to be a Democratic proposal that probably won't be supported by a majority of Democrats and closely resembles the President's energy strategy?" asks Senator Paul D. Wellstone (D-Minn.).

Drilling in the refuge isn't the bill's only controversial provision. The measure would ease restrictions on wholesale marketing of electricity, speed up the licensing of nuclear power plants, and streamline the approval of natural-gas pipelines.

But the Alaska refuge is the big sticking point, and as the Senate prepares to take up the bill, the rift is deepening. At a recent closed meeting of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, several colleagues attacked Johnston for supporting an Administration program. At least eight Democrats, including environmental protection subcommittee Chairman Max S. Baucus (D-Mont.), are threatening to filibuster the bill because of its tilt toward production. "A huge controversy rages around the Arctic, stopping everything else," declares Senator Timothy E. Wirth (D-Colo.), one of the potential filibusterers.

Now, Johnston is trying another route to appease conservation advocates by offering an amendment that would raise fuel-economy standards for cars. But that might not be enough to placate opponents, either.

Supporters of the bill probably have enough votes to cut off any filibuster. The final vote on drilling will be close. But lack of a coherent Democratic position on the energy measure probably means that the bill will emerge from the Senate in a form that George Bush likes--and will give the Administration a strong hand in the battles to come with the House.

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