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The man with his sights set on Area 181

Saint Pete is sitting in a leather easy chair on the third floor of the U.S. Capitol holding forth about the need to open a big chunk of the eastern Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling, a chunk that Floridians in Congress have fought for years to keep off-limits.

He waves his hand dismissively at their protestations, a swat at the darker fears of the Sunshine State: that drilling would pollute the state's beaches. That it would interfere with military training in the gulf. That allowing a little drilling now will mean derricks off Clearwater Beach later.

It is cold outside, and gray long-johns peek from the legs of Sen. Pete V. Domenici's dark blue suit as he leans forward to make his point:

High natural gas prices are hammering American citizens and industry. The quickest relief lies in the gas deposits beneath the warm gulf waters of Lease Area 181, 100 miles off the Florida Panhandle and about 200 miles west of Tampa Bay.

"This is 100 miles away!" he is saying. "I wouldn't be introducing a bill if we really believed it was going to jeopardize the state of Florida in any way. It's going to take some selling, but the time has come when we've got to do something great for this country."

He sinks back into the chair and sets his jaw. His Senate colleagues, seated on either side of him, have seen that look before. Once Saint Pete locks onto something, it is tough to pry him loose.

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Florida's U.S. senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Mel Martinez, are pushing a bill to create a permanent buffer extending 150 miles from the Panhandle and 260 miles off Tampa Bay. Their biggest obstacle is Domenici, R-N.M., an immigrant grocer's son from Albuquerque and chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Back home he is known as Saint Pete, in tribute to 33 years of keeping the federal dollars flowing to the military and research projects that drive New Mexico's economy. In Washington, he is the Senate's leading advocate for domestic energy production, beginning with the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

Today, his energy committee will hold a hearing on his bill to open about 2-million acres of Area 181 to drilling. It has bipartisan support, and he hopes to hold a committee vote as soon as March.

In Domenici, the Floridians face a formidable opponent, a seasoned legislator whom colleagues describe as especially aggressive, with a record of shepherding large, complex bills through a divided Senate. "He's tenacious," said Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, who has served with him for three decades. "If he believes his cause is just, he pursues it."

Most recently that cause was the energy bill, a comprehensive national energy policy that Domenici willed through the Senate on his second try, after a decade of failures by other chairmen. To ensure broad support, he took the unusual step of visiting privately with each member of his committee, Democrat and Republican. Only one voted against it.

In testament to Domenici's effort, President Bush flew to Albuquerque in August to sign the bill with Saint Pete at his side.

In an interview Wednesday, Domenici promised to devote the same energy to opening Area 181.

"We have a great standard of living because we use a lot of energy," Domenici said. "Now the ability to get that energy is at stake. It is kind of good, at this stage in my career, to be at the center of how we ensure that doesn't (happen)."

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Most politicians wear a perma-smile. Sometimes it seems Domenici, 73, wears a perma-scowl. Fellow senators describe him as often cantankerous, cranky and crusty, as irascible and mercurial. Unlike most politicians, he takes no pains to appear . . .

"Charming?" chuckled Mel Martinez, a member of Domenici's energy committee.

Domenici's temper rises quickly and sometimes erupts. A common target is Nelson, whom he accuses of political grandstanding on oil drilling, too ready to rush the Senate floor with poster-sized pictures of oil-soaked seabirds.

"Nelson, he cries too much," Domenici groused last year after Nelson threatened to filibuster the energy bill if it included drilling in the eastern gulf.

Another target is Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., his political nemesis on the energy committee. During a discussion on the energy bill last year, he harshly accused Wyden of ambushing him with an amendment to fund research for renewable energy at the same level as conventional fuels.

"It's ridiculous," Domenici snapped. "Let me suggest that's absolutely absurd as policy."

This week, Wyden grinned at the memory. In the 24 hours that followed, he said, Domenici probably apologized three times, telling him repeatedly "you know my affection for you."

"He's a tremendously effective chairman, and . . . he's one of the people I have most liked personally in public life," Wyden said.

Such is the wonder of Pete Domenici: He is the Senate's lovable curmudgeon, the grouchy neighbor who one minute is ordering the neighborhood kids off his lawn, and the next is offering them candy from the jar he keeps by the door.

Democrats and Republicans say he has won their respect by being direct, fair and honest, and he expects the same in return.

"He's very genuine, he's absolutely himself," said Martinez, a freshman. "He and I have been engaged in a political difference on one of the most important things to him. But . . . he has been willing to listen, to talk, debate. I don't know that a lot of chairmen would do that."

Asked about Domenici's temper with him, Nelson said, "That's just Pete's personality. He just came up to me on the floor yesterday and said he wanted me to look at another bill on a completely different subject. So we have a nice line of communication."

Phil Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, said that their views often clash but that Domenici is a pragmatist, not an ideologue. He is more willing than the White House and many congressional Republicans to consider conservation and alternative fuels when crafting energy strategy. "He comes from a generation of congressional leaders of both parties where achieving good policy is more important than partisan political points," Clapp said.

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Many environmentalists and Democrats say Domenici is too wedded to oil and gas. Natural resources and energy concerns are by far his biggest campaign supporters, having given him more than $430,000 in the current election cycle.

His energy bill included incentives for alternative sources, including wind and solar, but is heavily stacked toward fossil fuels. He's also the Senate's strongest advocate for reviving nuclear power.

"I don't think the committee is being bold enough in terms of getting us a real red, white and blue energy policy - we're going to be dependent on foreign oil, by the government's own admission, 15 to 20 years under this energy bill," Wyden said.

That isn't a problem in New Mexico, which has a robust oil and gas industry, and where he first earned the nickname Saint Pete for bringing federal support to the Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories.

"The whole idea is, here is a benevolent figure who is going to take care of us, and not only protect our interests, but has our interests at heart," said F. Chris Garcia, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico.

Garcia, who has followed Domenici's career for 36 years, called him a good fit for the state: a fiscal conservative who is moderate on social issues; a Catholic who speaks decent Spanish; a local with deep Albuquerque roots.

Since being elected in 1972, he remains immensely popular. In 2002, he won with a whopping 65 percent of the vote in a state that tends to vote Democratic.

Domenici said drilling off Florida is part of the balance. The section of Area 181 he hopes to tap holds an estimated 5-trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and industry officials say it's close enough to existing pipelines farther west to be tapped quickly.

"We love Florida. Domenici has no desire to harm Florida," he said Wednesday.

In the long-term, there may be alternatives to more drilling. But for relief in the next few years?

"There's only one, and it is to enhance our offshore drilling where we know it will work. And sorry, there's no doubt that's Lease Area 181."

U.S. SEN. PETE V. DOMENICI

BORN: May 7, 1932, in Albuquerque, N.M.

FAMILY: Wife, Nancy; eight children

CAREER: Math teacher, 1954-55; lawyer, 1958-72; Albuquerque City Commission, 1966-70; elected U.S. Senate, 1972; current chairman, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee

ON HIS NIGHTSTAND: Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin

TODAY

Domenici's energy committee will hold a hearing on his bill to open about 2-million acres of Lease Sale Area 181, some 100 miles off the Florida Panhandle in the Gulf of Mexico, to oil and gas drilling. Witnesses include representatives from government and the oil and gas industry. They are expected to discuss the potential gas reserves in the area and how accessible they are. No action is expected today, but Domenici hopes to hold a committee vote on the bill in March. Want to follow the bill? The number is S. 2253 and can be followed online at thomas.loc.gov.

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