With move on Arctic refuge, Obama again turns back on Republicans

President Obama has vowed to protect Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, something the Republican-led Congress is likely to oppose. The move offers further evidence of how Mr. Obama is approaching the final two years of his presidency.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge/AP/File
Caribou graze in a section of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska in this undated file photo. President Obama has announced his intentions to protect the area.

President Obama's decision to protect Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil exploration and drilling is the latest example of how the president using his executive toolkit to try to get out in front of a Congress allied against him.

After last autumn's midterm elections put Republicans in control of both houses of Congress, there was some thought that the apparent mandate for change from voters would chasten Mr. Obama and push him to work with Republicans. So far, however, it has been Obama that has kept Congress on a short leash, not the other way around.

From the Keystone XL pipeline to proposed changes to the Affordable Care Act, Obama has issued veto threats before Congress has had time to build significant momentum. Last Tuesday, Obama delivered a defiant State of the Union address that seemed more brass knuckles than olive branch. Now, he has laid down a marker on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

Alaska Republicans in particular are apoplectic, with Sen. Lisa Murkowski – in many ways a moderate – particularly displeased: "I cannot understand why this administration is willing to negotiate with Iran, but not Alaska. But we will not be run over like this," she said in a statement.

More broadly, the move speaks to a president who is not treading lightly as he waits to see how things develop. Just as Obama went ahead with his executive action to shield more than 4 million illegal immigrants from deportation after the midterms, he has continued to tick off items on his agenda, virtually irrespective of what Congress thinks.

This does not close the door to bipartisanship, Sarah Binder, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, told the Monitor earlier this month. But it does begin to provide the potential outlines for it.

"Serious adults are in charge here, and we intend to make progress," Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky recently told the Associated Press.

That appears to be more necessary by the day, as Obama shows he will not genuflect before the Republican Congress. Indeed, it seems he won't even do Congress the courtesy of waiting for members to make up their own minds before he starts nipping at their heels.

Whether that enrages Republicans or leads them to consider the president's wishes from the start could determine whether the faint bipartisan optimism present at the beginning of this Congress grows or is squelched.

On ANWR, the president has inserted himself into a controversy that dates back the Reagan presidency. Wedged into the remote northeast corner of Alaska, ANWR is a pristine landscape that runs from the jagged teeth of the Brooks Range north to the Arctic Ocean. It is the calving ground for Porcupine Caribou, as well as the breeding ground for birds that migrate across North America.

The northernmost coastal swath of ANWR has been seen as a promising place for oil exploration. But Congress must approve any development. A Republican-led House and Senate did just that in 1995, but President Clinton responded with a veto.

With the release of a White House YouTube video announcing his intent to protect ANWR, Obama is taking preemptive action. He asked Congress to designate ANWR a wilderness area, which Republicans almost certainly will not do. But even if that doesn't happen, the move still has significance. 

"While only Congress can create a wilderness area, once the federal government identifies a place for that designation, it receives the highest level of protection until Congress acts or a future administration adopts a different approach," reports Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post.

Chances are, Congress will not act, given that Democrats in the Senate can filibuster any bill that doesn't have 60 votes. (Republicans have 54.) Even if Republicans could cobble together a coalition of 60 to allow drilling, they almost certainly could not override a presidential veto.

With the Alaska economy already suffering from falling oil prices, Obama's move is as welcome as a stick in the eye, especially for pro-business Republicans. The idea of Obama invoking his executive authority to tell Alaskans what to do with Alaskan land also rankles. 

Senator Murkowski, for one, has said she thinks Obama is just getting warmed up. She told the Fairbanks (Alaska) News Miner that she thinks Obama is preparing the ground to declare ANWR a national monument – something he can do unilaterally. 

"I'm more than a little bit paranoid about the actions of this administration regarding Alaska," she told the paper.

The Republicans, it would seem, are still waiting for their post-election honeymoon. But the signs are that it is already over. 

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