WASHINGTON — The Senate on Wednesday voted narrowly against drilling for oil in the Alaskan wildlife refuge, dealing a crippling blow to the central element of the Bush administration's energy plan.
The vote, 52-48, came after the hardest-fought lobbying campaign yet in the congressional session, setting environmental groups, which said that oil production would destroy a pristine wilderness, against Alaskan business interests, which said that oil was necessary for jobs and energy independence.
Until the final moments, neither side was certain of victory, and the decision came down to two Republican senators — Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Gordon Smith of Oregon — whose opposition to drilling was not final until the floor vote.
The two days of debate that preceded the vote were unusually passionate and acrimonious, filled with battling statistics about the amount of oil under the frozen tundra and sarcastic asides about whether caribou were more important than American jobs.
The chief proponent of drilling, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, ended his remarks on the floor with an unusual but unmistakable threat to use his power as Appropriations Committee chairman against those who disagreed with him.
"People who vote against this today are voting against me," he said. "I will not forget it."
Even though Stevens has the ability to kill any senator's pet project, the threat did not seem to change any votes on what national environmental groups have called a core issue of commitment to their preservation goals.
Republican leaders had expressed hope that their takeover of the Senate this year would change the chamber's long-standing opposition to oil production in the refuge, but eight Republicans sided with most Democrats against drilling, while five Democrats supported it.
"I'm so proud of my colleagues because that's kind of a threat from a very powerful senator," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who led the opposition to drilling, after the vote. "But you know what? There's something more powerful out there than any senator, even than any president, and that's God's gift to us. And we stood on that side of preserving this wondrous gift."
Wednesday's vote, which stripped the drilling provision from the Senate's annual budget resolution, did not completely kill the possibility of approving drilling this year, but it made it much more difficult.
Had the measure been included in the resolution, opponents would not have been able to filibuster it, because of the Senate's budget procedures. After Wednesday's vote, opponents will be able to filibuster future attempts, which will require drilling supporters to come up with 60 votes.
Stevens nonetheless vowed to bring up the measure repeatedly. "It's never decided until we win," he said, calling the vote the most important to him in his 32 years in the Senate.
Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, the House majority leader, said that his chamber would probably approve drilling next month as part of an energy bill, which could force another vote in the Senate.