Republicans have little room for dissension as they debate a plan to overhaul the nation’s tax system, and the Senate wooed Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski by including a provision that allows oil exploration in a portion of Alaska’s North Slope.
That doesn’t sit well with some moderate House Republicans, including Miami Rep. Carlos Curbelo.
Last week, Curbelo and 11 other House Republicans signed a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urging the upper chamber to pass a tax bill without oil-drilling concessions in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
“For decades, Congress has voted to prohibit oil and gas development in the Refuge, with the overwhelming support of the American public,” the letter said. “Support for this protection remains strong today. After years of debate, the Arctic Refuge stands as a symbol of our nation’s strong and enduring natural legacy.”
Their effort didn’t work. The Alaska drilling provision was included in the Senate’s bill, and Murkowski, a key swing vote who voted against repealing Obamacare earlier this year, praised its inclusion.
“Tonight is a critical milestone in our efforts to secure Alaska’s future,” Murkowski said in a statement after the Senate bill passed 51-49. “Opening the 1002 Area and tax reform both stand on their own, but combining them into the same bill, and then successfully passing that bill, makes this a great day to be an Alaskan.”
Alaskan lawmakers have tried to expand drilling access in the state’s oil-rich North Slope for years, but they have been unable to do so. A late-night amendment to the Senate tax bill by Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell that would have stopped oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge failed by a 48-52 vote.
Curbelo’s office said tying oil drilling to taxes doesn’t make sense, but stopped short of saying that he’ll vote against the final bill if it includes the Arctic drilling provision.
“Congressman Curbelo strongly believes the tax proposal is not the appropriate venue for addressing ANWR,” Curbelo spokesperson Joanna Rodriguez said in a statement. “He made that clear to House and Senate Leadership last week and will continue to work with his colleagues on both sides of the aisle on legislation that focuses on reforming our tax code and giving South Florida families the chance to keep more of their hard-earned paychecks, not a debate about Arctic drilling.”
Curbelo is a major proponent of the GOP tax overhaul effort, frequently appearing with House Speaker Paul Ryan to tout the plan in Spanish. He is also the co-founder of the Climate Solutions Caucus, a group of lawmakers who care about the environment and in which each lawmaker who joins is required to bring along someone from the other side of the aisle. The caucus includes 31 House Republicans, enough members to vote down a tax bill, since the GOP can only afford 22 No votes if all Democrats vote against the bill.
Six Republican members who voted for the initial House tax bill, including Curbelo, signed the letter. The other six signers were among the 13 House Republicans who voted against the chamber’s tax bill in November.
On Monday, a group of protesters from the Sunrise Movement, a climate change advocacy group, staged a protest in Curbelo’s office urging him to vote against a tax bill that “sells out the Arctic.”
“If Representative Curbelo, the founder of the Climate Solutions Caucus, is serious about stopping climate change, protecting the vulnerable people of his district in South Florida, and protecting the Arctic from drilling, he’ll vote ‘no’ on this Big Oil bailout of a tax bill,” said Sunrise co-founder Evan Weber.
House and Senate leaders are expected to confer this week on a final tax bill, though the proposal that passed the Senate complies with an intricate set of budget rules. It’s not clear yet whether Arctic drilling or other differences like lowering the corporate tax rate in 2018 instead of 2019 will be a major sticking point during conference negotiations. Some Republicans who voted in favor of the initial bill, like Miami Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, cautioned that they could vote against the final proposal if enough changes aren’t made.