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Bush Enlists U.S. Unions in Push for Energy Plan

Patricia Wilson, Reuters
Reuters - January 18, 2002

WASHINGTON -- President Bush enlisted labor leaders Thursday to press Democratic allies in the Senate to approve oil drilling in an Alaskan wildlife refuge, saying his energy plan would create jobs.

Proving that politics sometimes does make strange bedfellows, the Republican president received a warm welcome at the Capitol Hill headquarters of the 1.4 million-strong Teamsters Union, which supports his proposal to open part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to exploration.

"I've been practicing the Heimlich maneuver all week long in case anything goes wrong," joked Teamsters' leader James Hoffa in a reference to Bush's run-in with a pretzel Sunday when he fainted after swallowing the snack the wrong way.

Bush courted Hoffa's support in the 2000 election, but he and other union leaders stuck with tradition and threw their wholehearted support behind Bush's Democratic opponent, Al Gore.

With U.S. unemployment rising and the economy in recession, the Teamsters and several other unions, believing that Bush's plan will create jobs, intensely lobbied lawmakers in the House , which last year passed the White House proposals including oil exploration in the Alaskan reserve.

Drilling in ANWR is a key element of the White House plan to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, which accounts for about 60 percent of the nation's petroleum supplies. The refuge on Alaska's northern coast is home to polar bears, caribou, migratory birds, and other wildlife. Many Americans want its pristine wilderness preserved.

AT TOP OF SENATE AGENDA

Geologists believe as much as 16 billion barrels of crude oil could be extracted from the area, although production could take 7 to 10 years.

"This energy bill we're working on is a jobs bill," Bush told about a dozen union leaders at the start of a round-table discussion. "That's why we're linked up on this issue."

Energy legislation will be at the top of the Senate's agenda when it returns to work later this month. A vote is expected by mid-February.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, has offered an alternative that calls for more energy conservation instead of ANWR drilling, but Hoffa urged a vote on the Bush plan. "The program has gotten bogged down in the Senate right now and has become a political football," he said. "All we want is an up or down vote."

The administration's efforts may be complicated by the widening scandal surrounding Enron Corp., Bush's biggest political patron. The energy-trading giant collapsed in the autumn and filed for bankruptcy on Dec. 2.

The White House Thursday denied allegations its energy plan was crafted to benefit Enron and also rebuffed calls for the release of information about contacts between Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force and energy companies, including Enron. The White House says it did nothing to help the company and did nothing wrong.

'GOOD FOR AMERICA'

"We've got Republicans sitting around this table, we've got Democrats sitting around this table, we've probably got some people who don't care about politics sitting around this table," Bush said. "But all of us know that the energy bill that's stuck in the Senate, that can't get voted on in the Senate, will be good for America."

Union official Doug McCarron told Bush he would appeal to Daschle, saying, "We need jobs and we need a strong economy."

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush went to Teamsters' headquarters with a list of items he wanted to talk about but called it "an open session."

"The president and these unions don't agree on every issue," he said. "I wouldn't be surprised if some of the union leaders bring up issues with which they disagree with the president." After brief remarks at the top, the rest of the meeting was closed to the media.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, who took part in the session, said ANWR's oil was needed to cut back on imports from the volatile Middle East, especially Iraq, which has become the sixth-biggest foreign crude supplier to the United States.

The oil that the U.S. government believes could be under the refuge would be enough to replace the amount of crude the United States imports from Iraq for 50 years.

"I think most Americans, if they had a vote, would say, 'I would like to have the option to not be dependent on oil from Iraq,''' Abraham told reporters after the meeting.


Patricia Wilson, Reuters
Bush Enlists U.S. Unions in Push for Energy Plan
Reuters January 18, 2002

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