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US Senate Votes to Allow Oil Drilling in Alaska Wildlife Refuge

The U.S. Senate Wednesday voted to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the state of Alaska to oil drilling, handing President Bush a key victory.

The vote came as crude oil prices reached record highs. Just hours before the vote, President Bush, who has made access to the refuge's oil a key part of his energy agenda, urged the Senate to support the measure. "It is a way to get some additional reserves here at home on the books," he said.

Supporters say that billions of barrels of oil could be pumped from the refuge.

Republican Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska said drilling in the refuge would cut U.S. dependence on oil from the volatile Middle East. He said anyone who opposed the legislation would be opposing protecting U.S. national security. "It is a vote to diminish our national security by relying on rogue nations, foreign nations, unstable regimes," he said.

But critics say drilling in the refuge would do little to end U.S. reliance on foreign oil. Senator John Kerry is the Massachusetts Democrat who unsuccessfully challenged President Bush for the White House last year. "The United States of America only has three percent of the world's oil reserves. Nothing we do in Alaska will affect the long-term security of the United States," he said.

Opponents say drilling in the refuge could threaten the rich wildlife in the area, an argument supporters dismiss. Opponents advocate conservation and say automobile manufacturers should make cars more energy efficient.

The provision is included in an overall budget bill. Republican leaders put it there because budget legislation is not subject to filibustering, or action aimed at blocking a measure.

Democrats, with support from moderate Republicans, have repeatedly blocked measures on drilling in the Alaskan refuge over the years.

The House of Representatives has passed similar measures numerous times in previous years.

Although the House did not include the oil drilling amendment in its current budget bill, it is expected to adopt the provision when the measure is finalized in a conference committee.