Will ANWR Defectors Face Wrath of Stevens?

Posted March 21, 2003 at 5:34pm

When the Senate approved the 2003 omnibus appropriations bill in January, Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) sent out multiple news releases touting his success in delivering more than $20 million in federal dollars to his state.

Seven months earlier, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) issued back-to-back press releases heralding his efforts and those of Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) to secure more than $5 million for Oregon-specific projects in the Defense and Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development and independent agencies appropriations bills.

But Capitol Hill insiders, Republican and Democratic alike, are betting Chafee and Smith aren’t likely to be knocking out as many news releases this year crowing about their ability to procure pork for their constituents.

The two broke a cardinal rule of Capitol Hill: Don’t cross the Appropriations chairman, particularly on his home-state issues.

Chafee and Smith joined six other Republicans in voting last week to strip a provision from the budget resolution that would have allowed new gas and oil exploration in Alaska’s frozen tundra. It was a personal defeat for Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who only minutes before the vote icily warned that Senators who stood in the way of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would face his wrath.

“In the time I have served here, many people have made commitments to me, and I have never broken a commitment in my life,” Stevens said sternly. “I make this commitment: People who vote against this today are voting against me, and I will not forget it.”

Translation? Don’t come knocking on my door for appropriations projects anytime soon, Senators and aides said.

“He has just done an awful lot of favors for an awful lot of people to see them turn on him,” said a senior Republican Senator, who employed another old-school Capitol Hill tradition in demanding anonymity when being quoted about the chairman.

The Senator predicted Stevens would penalize those who opposed him, particularly Chafee and Smith, “a little here and a little there” for their votes on ANWR.

A Senate Republican leadership aide agreed. “The thing about Ted Stevens, when he is that on the record, definitive, you have got to believe the guy,” said the aide, who asked not to be named. “Anybody in this town that will carry through on a threat, it’s Ted Stevens. He just doesn’t do that lightly.”

But why are GOP insiders singling out Chafee and Smith from the six other Republicans who voted against ANWR? In Chafee’s case, it might have been the Rhode Island Republican’s decision to voice his opposition to drilling in ANWR just prior to the vote, thereby triggering a sharp rebuke from Stevens.

As for Smith, several GOP Senators and staffers said it was their belief that the Oregon Senator had planned to vote against the amendment and side with Stevens. That would have given Stevens 49 votes, and insiders said that Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) promised to deliver the 50th vote if it was needed, enough to defeat the amendment.

While declining to elaborate on his private conversations with Stevens, Coleman said the situation was more complicated than simply delivering a vote, and pointed out that he was not opposed to new drilling in the area, but wanted to see a provision for renewable fuels included in the ANWR measure. At the end of the day, Coleman voted to strip the ANWR provision from the bill.

For his part, Smith denied he ever promised to vote against the amendment.

“I have always said to them, ‘Not never, but not now, and if I am the difference, talk to me,’” Smith said. “That is not saying, ‘You got my vote.’ Now if they want to interpret it otherwise, that is their problem.”

Many GOP Senators, though, expressed frustration with their Republican colleagues for not backing the ANWR measure, a key component of President Bush’s energy plan.

“Quite frankly, in this situation, there has been a lot of effort to try and hold Republicans together and somebody bails out and yet wants to be part of the group that tends to be tough,” griped a Republican Senator intimately involved in the ANWR debate.

Still, Smith said he is not concerned about possibly losing federal money for his state, arguing his vote put him in step with Oregonians.

“That is the price you pay, but you have got to vote the way you campaign,” Smith said. “When my name is on the ballot in Oregon, I answer to Oregonians. They are my boss.”

It’s unclear, what actions the Alaskan might take and his spokeswoman said she was not able to elaborate on Stevens’ statements other than to say, “They speak for themselves.”

Still, Chafee said he thinks it was “an emotional moment” for Stevens and predicted the Alaska Republican would not seek retribution.

“He is angry and I understand that,” Chafee said. “But I also think that underneath he is a kind person with a big heart.”