After Oil Drilling Loss, Senators Pull Funds For Needy
December 23, 2005
By DAVID LIGHTMAN, Washington Bureau Chief
WASHINGTON -- Senators angry about losing the fight over Alaska oil drilling punished Northeastern colleagues by knocking out $2 billion that would have helped low-income families pay their winter heating bills.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., called the action "a legislative pout," and Rep. John B. Larson, D-1st District, fumed, "This gives new meaning to the Grinch who stole Christmas."
Drilling advocates were unapologetic, saying Northeastern lawmakers had their chance to help the needy by supporting exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but they refused.
And, said Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, to those who would complain about the stripped-out funding, "I am going to go to every one of your states and I am going to tell them what you have done."
The low-income energy assistance money, which would have roughly doubled the amount available this winter, had been part of the $453 billion defense spending bill, which had the controversial drilling measure attached.
"They were trying to buy votes for drilling," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-4th District, a drilling opponent, a charge Stevens vehemently disputed.
In Connecticut, about 85,000 households are expected to get the energy aid this winter. The state expects about $40.9 million in federal funds approved in a separate bill Wednesday. The defense provision would have provided at least another $34 million.
Connecticut officials figure the state program, which will give most households a basic benefit of $675, will need at least $66 million. The state, which has $4.6 million of federal money left over from last year, is prepared to spend about $23 million of its own dollars if necessary.
Cold weather states lobbied hard for the extra funds because of the expensive winter that awaits constituents.
The Energy Information Administration has estimated that home-heating oil costs for the average household will go up 21 percent this season, or $255. A gas-heated home will see a 38 percent jump, costing an extra $282.
But they won't see the additional help from Washington anytime soon, thanks to a series of political maneuvers that began Wednesday when the Arctic drilling provision died.
The Senate failed by four votes to cut off a filibuster on drilling. That vote triggered closed-door negotiations as Senate leaders tried to figure out a way to get the Pentagon bill passed.
They finally agreed to drop drilling, but only if other items wrapped into the bill to win votes also were scrapped, like money for low-income energy aid, border security, some homeland security funding and some relief to Gulf Coast hurricane victims.
"The Republican leadership said `no' again by insisting that the Senate remove LIHEAP funding after the Senate rejected the special interest Arctic Refuge drilling provision," said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Stevens, who's been trying for 25 years to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, said it was not his fault the energy aid was gone.
"Many of you said I did this for political reasons, just a crass thing, pick up some money and give it away for votes," Stevens said. But he denied asking anyone for a vote.
"I talked to some of you about how you should vote," he said during Wednesday night's debate, "but I never went to you and said: `You have to vote for me.' You wouldn't be voting for me. It was voting for the people who would have been helped."
Drilling foes still saw Stevens' moves as a ploy.
"They loaded up the bill to force people to go along. The energy money should never have been there in the first place," Lieberman said.
Stevens' strategy did not work, even though his moves won some votes. Maine Republican Sens. Susan M. Collins and Olympia Snowe, opponents of Arctic drilling, voted to end the filibuster. So did Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., lured by the inclusion of Hurricane Katrina relief.
What hurt Stevens was that lawmakers opposed to drilling have held that position for years and even decades, and were not about to switch. Lieberman vowed he would find another way to bring up the low-income energy funding next month.