ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
In a major victory for Democrats and environmentalists, the Senate voted to block oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The action came shortly after another dramatic moment when the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Dick Cheney was needed to pass a measure to trim federal spending by nearly $40 billion. But the fate of other legislative matters remains unresolved as lawmakers try to get out of town for the holidays. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.
BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:
For the second time this year, the contentious issue of drilling in the arctic was the subject of an emotional Senate debate. The first time the measure was attached to a budget bill, but moderate Republicans in the House refused to go along. So this time, backers of drilling attached the provision to a must-pass $453 billion defense spending bill. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist tried to frame the debate as one about funding US troops.
Senator BILL FRIST (Republican, Tennessee; Majority Leader): The Democrats should not filibuster our defense appropriations bill, and that's what we will be voting on here in a few minutes. We are a nation at war. Right now our troops are engaged on the battlefield with a determined enemy. The consequences are grave.
NAYLOR: But Democrats weren't having that argument. Connecticut Democrat Joseph Lieberman, a fervent backer of the US effort in Iraq, said someone asked him how he, as a strong supporter of the military, could vote against the defense spending bill.
Senator JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (Democrat, Connecticut): My answer is I am not the one threatening support for our military in the middle of a war. It is those who have had the audacity and disrespect for our rules to attach this provision to funding for our troops that are endangering it.
NAYLOR: That was the heart of the Democrats' argument against the ANWR drilling provision; it was about Senate rules. It pitted two senior guardians of the institution against each other, Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia at 88 and 82-year-old Alaska Republican Ted Stevens. Resplendent in a red vest, Byrd professed his love for Stevens, but said he was wrong.
Senator ROBERT BYRD (Democrat, West Virginia): I love this man from Alaska. I do. I love him. I feel that I have--my blood in my veins is with his blood. I love him. But I love the Senate more!
NAYLOR: For his part, Stevens, wearing his favorite tie depicting the Incredible Hulk, emotionally defended his long and indefatigable advocacy of drilling for oil on the piece of wilderness on Alaska's North Slope.
Senator TED STEVENS (Republican, Alaska): I went to the North Slope first in 1953 as a young US attorney. I've been going there ever since. My best friends, really, in Alaska are up there. My first wife used to go up and go out with them on the whaling trips and spend days with them. We know this arctic. You don't know the arctic at all.
NAYLOR: Stevens was unable to sway enough of his colleagues to vote for the drilling plan, but opponents acknowledge it's only a temporary victory, that in all likelihood Stevens will be back again next year with another effort to win support for drilling.
Meanwhile, the fate of the underlying defense spending bill remains unresolved. It contains money not only for troops, but for hurricane victims and flu preparedness.
The other major legislation on the agenda for the day was a $40 billion package of spending cuts, but its ultimate fate, too, is unclear. The measure trims projected future spending in Medicare and Medicaid. For New Hampshire Republican Judd Gregg, it was the first time in eight years that Congress...
Senator JUDD GREGG (Republican, New Hampshire): ...put our toe in the water--actually, we're going up to our ankles in the water of the issue of future responsibilities and how we control the spending of the federal government.
NAYLOR: The bill also cut student loans and child support enforcement while further tightening work requirements for welfare recipients. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid denounced it.
Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Minority Leader): It's an ideologically driven, extreme budget. It caters to lobbyists, an elite group of ultraconservative ideologues in Washington, all at the expense of middle-class Americans.
NAYLOR: While approving the spending cuts, the Senate made some minor changes to the bill so it will now have to go back to the House, where it passed narrowly just before dawn Monday morning. The House is not expected to revisit the legislation until it returns to session at the end of January. Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.