Buried under all the war coverage last week was a piece of news damaging to the Bush administration's domestic agenda: Its plan to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) was defeated narrowly in the Senate. ANWR drilling, of course, was the central plank of George W. Bush's energy platform. He'd even urged Congress to pass it on the basis of national security, the idea being that if we drilled for oil at home, we wouldn't need to import so much from abroad and thus be vulnerable to the whims of dictators such as Saddam Hussein. The defeat of ANWR should have garnered more news coverage because it's the most promising sign yet for Democrats that Bush is vulnerable in 2004.
For the last several years, ANWR has been one of the most contentious and high-profile issues in the Senate. Energy groups have spent millions of dollars lobbying on it. And the administration has invested considerable political capital on ANWR, with Vice President Dick Cheney reaching out to undecided lawmakers. Using a crafty procedural move designed to make ANWR's passage easier, Republicans tried to include it in the fiscal year 2004 budget resolution, which would have prevented senators from filibustering it and therefore not required 60 votes to shut off debate. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who runs the powerful Committee on Appropriations, told senators that the vote was personally important to him. After it failed, he threatened to use his position to deny funds to the states of senators who'd opposed him. "You bet your bottom dollar I'll remember [this vote]," Stevens said. "If I ever give my word, I keep it. I'm mad enough to eat nails right now, to have people not keep their word to me."
Fortunately, 52 senators were not cowed either by Stevens' threats or Bush's false promises that drilling in ANWR would significantly ease U.S. reliance on Middle East oil. The Democrats and moderate Republicans who bucked the White House showed that their support for the president on the war didn't translate into support for his policies at home. In other words, they were able to differentiate between Bush as commander in chief and Bush as politician. That's an especially impressive distinction given the tendency of politicians to rally around their leader during times of war.
By voting against ANWR drilling, senators showed that even though they're closely watching what goes on overseas, they know that their first duty is to serve their constituents at home. (Polls showed that most people oppose drilling in ANWR.) It's the job of senators to fully debate issues, and they shouldn't be made to feel unpatriotic if they disagree with the president on domestic issues or on the war. (House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) has accused Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) of "emboldening Saddam Hussein by criticizing President Bush's "failed diplomacy.")
It was particularly refreshing to see freshman Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) not cave in to pressure from Cheney and other GOP leaders. According to The New York Times, Coleman, one of two GOP holdouts, was promised more energy investments at home if he voted for the ANWR bill. Coleman resisted. None of the other eight freshman Republican senators joined him. This is a lesson to President Bush that even though his party controls both sides of the Capitol, he shouldn't expect Congress to rubber-stamp his agenda.
Of course, Congress last week voted to give President Bush much of what he wants in terms of tax cuts. The House approved a budget that includes Bush's $726 billion tax cut, although the Senate voted to chop $100 billion from that amount. The tax cut is another top priority for Bush, but it is one that many moderate Republicans supported unhappily. "We're on the edge of a fiscal crisis in this country if we keep going the way we are, particularly with this war that's hanging over us today," Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) told The Washington Post. Voinovich's statement is a warning signal to Bush that he may not be so lucky the next time around.
The ANWR question isn't dead, either. It's still a top priority for DeLay, who expects that the House will pass it and an energy bill in April. That means that senators will probably find the issue on their desks again. The good news is that Republicans will need 60 votes because next time Democrats will be able to filibuster the bill. And Republicans know they don't have those votes.
Still, the ANWR defeat for Bush means that, while his approval ratings are likely to go up in the opening weeks of the war against Iraq, there's no guarantee they'll stay there. The public's support for him is really support for the troops, not for the president's agenda. Once the war is over, Americans will turn their attention back to the problems at home. If the Democrats hammer away at Bush on his misguided domestic policies, Bush's presidency could start to look a lot like his father's -- and end the same way, too.
Mary Lynn F. Jones is a Prospect senior editor.