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Friday, March 3, 2006 - Page updated at 11:09 AM


Stevens drops oil-tanker bill to give Cantwell's GOP foe an edge in race

Seattle Times Washington bureau

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In chess, it's a bold gambit. A player sacrifices a valuable piece in order to take down his opponent's queen. This time, the player, Sen. Ted Stevens, is giving up one of his favorite bills in the Senate in an effort to take out his nemesis, Sen. Maria Cantwell.

The chessboard is the Washington Senate race, where Cantwell, a freshman Democrat, is facing re-election against Republican Mike McGavick. Stevens, R-Alaska, who has fought Cantwell on several fronts, wants to find ways to help McGavick defeat her.

Yesterday, Stevens handed McGavick a gift. Stevens took to the Senate floor to announce he will withdraw his own bill introduced last November to open up the Puget Sound to more oil tankers at the Cherry Point docks near Bellingham.

In doing so, he credited McGavick for persuading him to undo his legislation. He also gave McGavick an opportunity to claim as his own a corner of Cantwell's election platform of energy and environmental issues.

"I have never in my 38 years in the Senate asked to have any bill I introduced be permanently postponed, but that is my intention now," Stevens said from the Senate floor.

"One letter from a Washingtonian convinced me," he added.

At a press conference later, he identified the letter writer as McGavick. "Mike McGavick came to me and said it ought to be discussed," Stevens said.

Stevens' speech played into McGavick's own announcement about the bill a couple of hours later.

"I'm pretty proud of the role I played in this," McGavick said. "If I can do this as a candidate, imagine what I can do as a senator."

In a news conference laying out his campaign theme of civility on Capitol Hill, McGavick said the episode illustrates he's a problem solver who wouldn't be a part of what he called D.C.'s "culture of permanent campaigning."

He characterized himself as "a voice of Northwest common sense, Northwest civility."

To that end, Stevens told reporters back in D.C. that Cantwell, unlike McGavick, had never talked with him about the bill. "One senator attacked me in the press," he said, referring to Cantwell.

Several times, Stevens praised McGavick, the former Safeco CEO, for contacting him privately to tell him his concerns. Stevens added, "I'm trying to stop it [the oil tanker bill] from becoming a football in the election."

Stevens and McGavick aren't strangers. McGavick worked as chief of staff for former Sen. Slade Gorton, who Cantwell narrowly beat in 2000. And McGavick's press aide, Elliott Bundy, once worked for Stevens.

For her part, Cantwell took credit for the demise of Stevens' bill. "It's again clear that Senator Cantwell succeeded in defending Puget Sound from supertankers," her spokeswoman, Katharine Lister, said. "Senator Cantwell is part of a long Northwest tradition of working across party lines to balance our economic needs while protecting our fragile environment."

But oil tankers and McGavick's promised civility weren't the only issues in play yesterday. In withdrawing his bill, Stevens noted that Washington state issues should be decided by Washingtonians, and Alaska issues by Alaskans. One of those issues, Stevens said, is his 25-year effort in Congress to open up oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

McGavick supports drilling in ANWR, while Cantwell led the Senate charge in ultimately killing the issue — for now — in December. Stevens has vowed to bring it back.

Stevens' Puget Sound bill would have repealed the Magnuson Amendment of 1977, named after the late Sen. Warren Magnuson, a Democrat and leader on environmental matters. The amendment seeks to protect the Puget Sound from oil spills by restricting the tanker traffic that supplies state refineries.

One attempt to lift the amendment's restriction was removed from a bill in the House in September, after pressure from Reps. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, and Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island.

After that, executives for BP, which owns a large refinery at Cherry Point near Bellingham, quietly turned to Stevens.

Stevens introduced his bill in November, infuriating many Washington residents.

Uproar over the bill put Cantwell in the spotlight when she quickly came out against it. Two weeks later, McGavick visited Stevens in D.C.

"I thought, 'Shoot, why don't I just go see him,' " McGavick said. "I couldn't make it any worse."

Stevens said yesterday that his bill had been "deliberately mischaracterized" by opponents. It would not increase the number of tankers in the Puget Sound, he said, just the number of them that could dock at Cherry Point.

But McGavick stayed on Stevens and his staff, sending a letter on Feb. 21.

"As I did in November, I must very respectfully re-iterate my opposition to your plan. Puget Sound's ecosystem is cherished by the entire Pacific Northwest and the health of the Sound is directly tied to the health of our area's economy," he wrote.

McGavick has weighed in on two other issues, he noted — the continuation of Washington-Alaska ferry service and funding for the Alaskan Way Viaduct. "Other people approach these through press releases," he said. "I just actually talk with people."

Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, said he thinks others besides McGavick jawboned Stevens. "I'm betting Jermaine Magnuson (the late senator's widow) made Stevens do this," Dicks said.

But he enjoyed Stevens' showmanship and McGavick's strategy. "We've saved the Magnuson Act. We'll take a victory any way we take it."

Staff reporter Eric Pryne contributed to this story.

Alicia Mundy: 202-662-7457

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company




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