11/09/2005 08:15 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Next Bluff on the Arctic

As I write this, on Wednesday afternoon, the House Rules Committee is drawing up the House version of the Budget Reconciliation bill. All day long, rumors have been swirling that the leadership has taken Arctic and coastal drilling out of the bill to get enough votes to pass it -- then that they have put them back in. At the same time, speculation is wild about whether yesterday's less-than-stellar day for the Bush administration has stiffened the spine of the various opponents of the Reconciliation bill.

At this point no one really knows how the leadership calls this one -- we do know that the Democrats have indicated united opposition to the Reconciliation bill, and that enough moderate Republicans have said they are unhappy about drilling the Refuge, sacrificing the coasts, or cutting health care and other benefits that, if they do hang tough, the bill will fail to pass.

But it's important to recognize that there is a huge element of bluff in all these early rounds. Say the Rules Committee takes drilling out of its bill, which then passes the House. That's a sign of our strength, and to be applauded -- but the bill still goes to conference with the Senate, whose own version of the bill includes drilling. One can be fairly sure that the final bill that comes back from that conference will give the oil industry what it wants. And some of those moderates may then say, "Well, we gave you one vote; we give our party the next."

On the other hand, suppose the House leadership decides to push ahead with Richard Pombo's approach and twists enough moderate arms by holding the vote open that Reconciliation squeaks through. The moderates who were bullied would then bear the brunt of a huge outcry from back home. When the bill then came back from conference with the Senate (almost certainly worse from the viewpoint of deficit reduction than the House vehicle), would those moderates be willing to sacrifice their beliefs, their values, and the views of their constituents a second time?

So we need to worry less about gaming the next move, and more about making it clear to members of both the House and the Senate that a vote for any final Budget Reconciliation package that drills the Refuge will be a truly unforgivable act that will haunt their careers for years. It's our voices in those key states and districts that matter.