Plans to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil and natural gas drilling went down in flames Wednesday as Senate proponents failed to override a filibuster of a conference report on the $453 billion defense appropriations bill that called for refuge access for producers.

By 56 to 44, proponents of drilling in ANWR fell just shy of the 60 votes needed to override the filibuster, which was led by Senate Democrats and moderate Republicans. Three Republicans, including Sens. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Mike DeWine of Ohio, joined Democrats in supporting the filibuster, which removed ANWR from the military spending bill.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) vowed to use every procedural means available to prevent ANWR exploration and production, which she said would have amounted to “Christmas packages for oil companies.”

The Senate vote was a significant setback for the Bush administration, which has pressed for drilling on the coastal plain of ANWR for years, and for the oil and gas industry.

Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, called the vote a “blow to American consumers.” He signaled that he will not give up on ANWR. “I will seek to include an ANWR provision in the budget resolution next spring just as we did this year…ANWR remains one of my top priorities.”

The Senate action was a “great disappointment to manufacturers in the U.S.,” said John Engler, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, whose members are large consumers of natural gas. “The Senate missed an opportunity to increase America’s domestic supply of oil and natural gas for years to come.”

ANWR was not the only loser. The defense bill also included provisions authorizing $2 billion in funding for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) for fiscal year 2006. “We will lose the LIHEAP dollars” as a result of the Senate vote Wednesday, said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH).

The House earlier this week voted overwhelmingly to open the refuge to producers before adjourning for the year, leaving it up to the Senate to decide the fate of ANWR. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) inserted ANWR in the conference report on the defense appropriations measure after it was stripped from the budget reconciliation package to appease centrist Republicans.

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