Some in GOP Urging McCain to Flip on ANWR

Posted June 11, 2008 at 6:26pm

With gas at $4 a gallon and rising, some House and Senate Republicans are urging Arizona Sen. John McCain, their party’s presumptive presidential nominee, to ditch his longtime opposition to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

McCain’s opposition to ANWR drilling has been a key plank in his brand as a maverick, but now that he is the party’s standard-bearer, it muddies the GOP message of blaming Democrats for record gas prices because of their opposition to domestic drilling.

Rep. John Peterson (R-Pa.), a major supporter of more drilling, said he has been trying to get a meeting between McCain and about 25 House Republicans on the issue.

“We need to get on common ground on energy,” he said. “We ought to be able to clear the air and get on the same page. I haven’t given up on it. For us not to produce it is crazy.”

Congressional Republicans say McCain could easily justify a flip-flop on ANWR given the spike in gas prices.

“We all have the right to change our minds when the facts change,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), noting the increase in prices. “Something’s got to give. I hope he reconsiders his position based on the facts.”

“With gas at $4 a gallon, I’d think you’d want to look for domestic supply wherever you can get it in an environmentally sensitive way, and you can do that in the ANWR,” Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) added.

Other Republicans have been targeting ANWR opponents during Senate floor speeches.

“If President Clinton hadn’t vetoed it, we would be pumping the same amount of oil that we import from Saudi Arabia every day, and we would not have $4-a-gallon gasoline at the pump for hard-working Americans, so it can pass with leadership,” said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas).

At a press conference highlighting Republican support for more drilling in ANWR and elsewhere, House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said he’d like to see John McCain reconsider his position, although he noted that McCain has been with Republicans on other ways of increasing supply.

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), a leading moderate, predicted McCain could switch on the issue without getting hurt politically, although Davis stopped short of recommending he do so.

“I think $4 gas changes the dynamic, and there’s nothing wrong with a leader changing in a time of crisis,” he said. “It would be justifiable.”

But some Republicans are warning that a flip-flop could tarnish McCain’s stature with environmentally sensitive independent voters.

Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who along with a small band of House Republicans helped block ANWR drilling in 2005, called the issue iconic for the environmental community and said there are other areas in which to add production without touching ANWR.

“A park is a park,” he said. “We made a decision to create this reserve for all time and we should honor it.”

And he pointed to McCain’s independent appeal.

“The best thing about McCain is what you see is what you get. While they are learning more and more about other candidates, they know John McCain, and they haven’t been surprised.”

Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who continues to oppose the drilling, said McCain can talk about other domestic oil production that he supports instead. “There are many areas that don’t touch the ANWR nerve,” Coleman said.

But Coleman acknowledged that the political calculus is difficult.

“He’s got to decide what he wants to do. My sense is the majority of the American people want us to drill, including in ANWR. But I’ve made commitments.”

Senate Energy and Natural Resources ranking member Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), a leading backer of drilling in ANWR, predicted McCain wouldn’t change but said he didn’t see it as a problem.

“We know that Sen. McCain as the presidential nominee of ours is not going to be with us on everything,” Domenici said. He added that McCain has expressed support for other domestic drilling proposals.

“He joins us when he says, ‘Let’s produce,” Domenici said. “Now how do you produce? Maybe we come up with five things, and he’s for three of them.”

Democrats, meanwhile, considered the internal GOP debate with bemusement.

“I think they should reach and pick up the phone and talk to John McCain,” said Nadeam Elshami, spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “Who knows? He may decide to change like he did on supporting President Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy.”

Emily Pierce contributed to this report.