White House Dropped Ball on ANWR

With no discernable pressure being exerted on them by the Bush White House, a group of 25 Republicans—all but a few of whom are either moderates or liberals—stopped the House from attaching a measure that would have allowed drilling in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to the spending-cut bill pushed by House conservatives.

As Human Events was going to press on November 17, the House leadership was preparing to bring the spending-cuts package up for a vote but without the ANWR provision, a spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert said.

Appeasing Moderates

Although the Senate had passed a provision that would allow oil drilling in a small part of ANWR, opposition to the ANWR provision from a small group of House Republicans was so intense that House Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R.-Mo.) had been forced before the Veterans Day weekend to cancel the vote on the House spending-cut bill that included it.

Noting that most House Republicans as well as “about three dozen labor union Democrats” support ANWR drilling, Blunt told me, “There are some on our side of the aisle who are going to be this way on ANWR the way there are those who are always going to vote pro-life.”

The failure of House Republicans to pass the spending cuts with the ANWR provision attached came even after President Bush—in response to a letter from 39 Republicans from districts in which big labor flexes political muscle—reversed his earlier decision to suspend the Davis-Bacon Act (which requires government contractors to pay inflated wages) for post-Hurricane Katrina reconstruction. The President’s reversal was seen by some Republicans as an effort to appease the moderates so they would vote for the budget cuts. But it did not work.

Unlike Medicare

The failure of the White House to move moderate Republicans to vote to allow drilling in ANWR heightened already-serious doubts among conservatives as to just how committed the Bush Administration is to expanding domestic energy sources. Indeed, after discussions with numerous Republican lawmakers, I found no evidence that, when it came to the ANWR vote, the White House deployed anything like the all-out vote-getting campaign it waged in 2003 to get conservative House Republicans to back the President’s $8-trillion-dollar Medicare prescription drug plan.

“I would not characterize the administration effort [on ANWR] of a similar scale to that behind the prescription drug package,” said Rep. Mark Kennedy (R.-Minn.). The normally conservative Kennedy, who is the likely Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate in Minnesota next year, is one of the “Gang of 25” who signed a November 8 letter vowing to vote against budget reconciliation if it allowed ANWR drilling. Asked if Bush or any top aides such as White House Chief of Staff Andy Card lobbied him on the issue, Kennedy said, “No.” The one case of an administration “push” Kennedy could recall was that “[Secretary of the Interior] Gale Norton was nice enough to come to my office to talk about ANWR. I appreciated her visit, but she knew where I stood.”

Similarly, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R.-Md).—like Kennedy, a conservative but one who opposes ANWR drilling—told me there was no White House pressure or even attempts at persuasion from the Bush team. “Most of my conversations were with Roy Blunt and they were in his office,” Bartlett told me. “I don’t remember any with the White House.”

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R.-N.Y.), a leading House Republican moderate, told me, “There was no quid pro quo asked on Davis-Bacon [restoration] from the White House. I have been a Davis-Bacon supporter from Day One and they know it.”

For its part, the administration did not voice any anger at Republicans who skewered ANWR drilling. Queried by reporters the day after Blunt pulled the bill including it, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan would only say the administration “supports inclusion of ANWR” in the final bill and hopes that it is restored in a House-Senate conference committee.