WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans, continuing a national GOP push to hammer Democrats on gasoline prices, unveiled a domestic oil exploration plan Thursday that includes a call for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.
The Senate Democrats who control the chamber summarily dismissed the idea. Drilling in ANWR is also opposed by all three of the presidential candidates: Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.
But that didn't dampen the enthusiasm of Alaska's Sen. Ted Stevens, who got almost as excited at Thursday's news conference as he did in 2005 when the Senate rejected his plan to drill in ANWR and he described it as "the saddest day in my life."
Stevens lashed out at Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., noting Schumer's Wall Street constituents and suggestin that Schumer should consider more regulation of commodities speculators who've driven oil prices up. Alaska can manage affairs in its own backyard, Stevens said.
"I know something about Arctic oil," Stevens said. "He should keep his nose out of my business. I'll keep my nose out of his."
Stevens dismissed questions from reporters that pointed out studies that have found there would be little effect on gasoline prices if ANWR were opened to exploration. He argued that it would offer long-term stability in the market, he said, insulating it from rampant speculation long before the first drops of oil start flowing.
"It's true, it'll take a few years," Stevens said. "But remember, we did pass the bill once and Bill Clinton vetoed it. We should have that oil today. If we start now, we could really return the concept of producing at least a substantial portion of our own oil and restore our economy as we do it."
His enthusiasm was contagious. Opening ANWR will create jobs in Alaska, said his colleague, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., joking that it's "part of the United States."
Stevens' fellow Alaska Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, also advocated for drilling in the wildlife refuge. Murkowski, who has filed legislation calling for ANWR to be opened once the price of oil hits $125 a barrel, pledged that oil exploration would be environmentally sensitive.
"We're saying, 'Hey, we're willing to take the safeguards, we're willing to restrict it,' " she said. "Allow us to use the technology that this country pioneered to develop a resource that this country needs."
There's little evidence, however, that Democrats will consider Murkowski and Stevens' plea.
Senate Democrats, who'll unveil their own energy proposal Friday, scoffed at drilling in ANWR. Their own proposal is expected to call for an end to tax breaks for oil companies as well as take a stand against OPEC pricing and supply control.
It's "time to stand up to Big Oil instead of giving tax breaks and subsidies to companies that rake in record profits," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "The Bush Administrations oil-friendly, anti-environment policies of the past seven years have resulted in one of the greatest shakedowns of American families in our nations history, and Democrats are committed to reversing them.
Yet Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., didn't give up.
When asked what would make his Democratic counterparts consider proposals that had failed previously in the Senate, he pointed to a blue poster showing the average price of gas when Democrats took over Congress at the beginning of 2007: $2.33 a gallon. Underneath was Thursday's average price per gallon: $3.62.
Said McConnell: "We think we should produce the American energy right here at home, to bring gas prices down."