WASHINGTON -- The Senate on Wednesday narrowly rejected President Bush's bid to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling, dealing a blow to the White House, which has argued that increasing domestic energy production is critical to national security.
The Senate voted 52 to 48 for a proposal by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., to strip ANWR drilling authority from the 2004 Senate budget resolution.
The action means that unless Bush manages to change some votes, the drilling provision is dead for this Congress.
"It's a big victory for those in this country who believe that precious places deserve to be protected," Boxer said. The vote was "a huge setback" for the Bush administration, she said.
White House officials had argued that drilling in the refuge would reduce American dependence on foreign oil and bolster national security in a time when war is likely.
"It's unfortunate that the Senate missed an opportunity to increase America's energy independence at a critical time," White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said.
All but five Democrats voted against refuge drilling, but eight Republicans bucked their party. Florida Sens. Bob Graham and Bill Nelson, both Democrats, voted to strip the language.
Congress set aside the refuge in 1960 and declared the oil off limits unless a measure specifically lifted the ban.
Lobbying for the proposal were Vice President Dick Cheney, who called several lawmakers, as well as representatives of the Teamsters, who support the drilling because of the jobs it would create.
The Bush administration has called the Arctic refuge, in Alaska's northeast corner, the "single greatest prospect" for onshore oil and gas development of any place in the United States.
On the other side, representatives of environmental groups stood outside the Senate chamber to press their case against the drilling.
Lawmakers were told that within the environmental community, the vote on the drilling issue would be viewed as among the most important of the year. Some groups said they planned to highlight it on the report cards they issue ranking legislators on environmental issues.
Drilling supporters had hoped to finally win their decades-long fight after Republicans took control of the Senate in last year's election. While the drilling proposal passed the GOP-controlled House last year, it was blocked in the Senate by a Democrat-led filibuster.
Senate GOP leaders this time sought to get around a filibuster -- which requires 60 votes to end -- by attaching the drilling measure to a budget measure. Under Senate rules, such measures are not subject to a filibuster.
Leading the prodrilling charge was Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who has substantial power as chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
"People who vote against this today are voting against me and I will not forget," he said.
Stevens said modern drilling technology would allow oil to be pumped without harming wildlife.
During debate, Boxer wielded large posters showing caribou and wild flowers and an Alaskan whimbrel bird, saying drilling in the refuge would jeopardize wildlife and arguing "there isn't enough oil in it to make a whit of difference."
Stevens showed posters depicting a vast tundra. His posters showed that the site was "not those pretty pictures," Stevens said, adding that the drilling would occur when the tundra was frozen.
Estimates of the oil reserves in the arctic refuge range from a low of 5.7-billion barrels to a high of 16-billion barrels.
Alaskans argued that oil exploration would be limited to a 2,000-acre footprint on 1.5-million acres of the state's northern coastal plain. They said exploration would provide much-needed jobs.
Drilling advocates say the arctic site could produce well over 1.4-million barrels of oil a day, greater than the amount produced in the oil-rich states of Texas or California.
Supporters also said it would produce 575,000 well-paid jobs.
Democrats said the oil was not nearly enough to affect imports.
"While endangering one of the most pristine areas in the world, drilling in the (refuge) would do nothing to make our country more energy independent," said Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.
He said none of the oil would flow out of the refuge for 10 years.
Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, said, "Arctic drilling would not put a dent in our dependence on foreign oil, would do nothing to strengthen our national security, and would not save consumers a dime. We cannot drill our way to energy independence."
Opponents and supporters agreed on one point: The question will come up again.
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., vowed that when his committee drafts a national energy bill next month he will put in language to expand oil and gas exploration of the Gulf of Mexico and other sites.
"If we continue to let our energy production dwindle, supplies will remain tight, prices will remain volatile, the cost of goods will continue to rise, America will lose more jobs and our economy will stumble," Domenici said in a written statement.
Democrats who voted against Boxer's amendment and for drilling were John Breaux and Mary Landrieu, both of Louisiana; Daniel Akaka and Daniel Inouye, both of Hawaii, and Zell Miller of Georgia. All five had voted in favor of drilling last year as well.
The eight Republicans who voted against oil development were Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, both of Maine; Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island; Gordon Smith of Oregon; Mike DeWine of Ohio; Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois; John McCain of Arizona, and Norm Coleman of Minnesota.