Sen. Ted Stevens, wearing his "Incredible Hulk" tie, talks to reporters just off the Senate floor Tuesday on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. The Senate is expected to vote today on allowing oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. "I'm hopeful I'll have (the votes), but I don't go out on a limb and say yes, I've got votes," the senator told reporters. Stevens' aide, Courtney Boone, left, tapes his remarks. (Photo by DOUG MILLS / The New York Times)
WASHINGTON -- Two dozen reporters set upon Sen. Ted Stevens outside the Senate chamber Tuesday afternoon. Stretching their microphones and digital voice recorders toward him, they repeatedly asked some form of the same question: Does he have the votes?
The Senate is scheduled to vote today on allowing oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an ever-roiling controversy that, at Stevens' insistence, was attached last week to the annual military spending bill.
One reporter made the mistake of asking Stevens if he was confident he would win.
"I'm never confident about anything. I keep telling you that," the Alaska Republican said. "I can't predict that. I'm hopeful I'll have them, but I don't go out on a limb and say yes, I've got votes."
Reporters jostled. Two photographers aimed for a clear shot.
In the Capitol corridors, one measure of a senator's power is the size of the media mob around him. For the past two weeks, Stevens has been at the eye of the swarm because of his bald-faced move to tie ANWR to the Defense Department appropriations bill.
Democrats charge that he's abusing his power, that he's doing favors for the oil industry, that he's breaking the Senate rule against last-minute bill additions.
"This is nothing more than legislative blackmail to try to get colleagues to vote for something because it is a must-pass bill," Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., called Stevens' maneuver "outrageous and unacceptable." Environmentalists are calling Stevens a bully.
Stevens, wearing his signature "Incredible Hulk" tie, trudges on, although he admitted he was weary of being accused of everything from cantankerousness to treason.
"Between the extreme environmentalists and the press, I've become the demagogue of America, so you can't hurt my feelings anymore," he told reporters. "I don't have any feelings anymore. After 37 years (in the Senate) -- I've been in government almost 50 years, and no one has ever called me the names they've called me in the last two weeks."
At one point, he yelled at the horde behind him to quit shoving. One of his aides and a member of his security detail, vying for inches with a reporter, had bumped the senator.
To pass ANWR drilling today, Stevens must get 60 votes to shut off debate on the bill, in a vote known as cloture. If he succeeds, ANWR opponents may still raise points of order to say the bill violates Senate rules. If those are sustained, Stevens can overturn the rulings with 51 votes.
Vice President Dick Cheney cut short a Middle East trip Tuesday in case Republicans need him to cast a tie-breaking vote on the defense spending bill or the pending five-year budget.
The $453 billion defense bill has several items unrelated to military spending, including $29 billion for Hurricane Katrina relief. It says that the ANWR revenues are to be split 50-50 between Alaska and the federal government. It earmarks most of the federal share of initial revenues for hurricane aid and for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
Stevens said last weekend that he's not holding defense spending and hurricane aid hostage to ANWR. If he loses the vote, he said, he and other bill negotiators can form a new conference committee and rewrite the legislation without ANWR.
But Tuesday, in a Senate speech, he said he wouldn't let ANWR go so easily. If the bill fails, he'll go back to the conference committee and press to have ANWR added back in, he said.
"As a matter of fact, if I'm a member of that conference committee, it'll produce the same result," he said.
That would leave the Senate no closer to finishing its work for the year.
"So face up to the issue now and decide whether you want to provide for energy independence in the future ... or whether you just want to continue debating ANWR," he told his colleagues.
Doesn't that contradict his earlier statement, a reporter asked him later, that he would not hold the rest of the bill hostage to ANWR?
"It does to a certain extent, but it depends on how you feel at that time," he said. "I said I could put (ANWR) in there. I didn't say I would."
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, defended Stevens' strategy of tying the ANWR legislation to the defense bill. It's not one senator trying to pursue a special interest, she said. Alaska's leaders, among others, have been working to open ANWR for 25 years, she noted.
"Senator Stevens, in his tenure here, has figured out the rules," she said. "He is using the rules, not breaking them. That ought not be viewed as an abusive thing."
Stevens, after talking to reporters for a while, issued a last call for questions. He reminded them that he is 82 and said he's tired.
"I don't have another 25 years to do this," he said. "And I don't have another 25 minutes to answer your questions, either. I've answered most of these things twice today already."
Daily News reporter Liz Ruskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.