As Republicans close in on passing sweeping tax reform, they have also gotten closer to something U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford notes has nothing to do with taxes: Drilling for oil in federally protected land in Alaska.

Sanford, R-S.C., joined 10 other House Republicans in sending a letter to GOP leadership urging them to vote against any proposal that would include an oil and gas leasing program in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR.

"After years of debate, the Arctic Refuge stands as a symbol of our nation's strong and enduring natural legacy," the letter dated last week says.

"The fate of the Arctic Refuge and its sensitive Coastal Plain lies in the hands of Congress and we must ensure robust debate on this highly-controversial issue," it reads.

Early Saturday, the Senate passed The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that rewrites the nation's tax code. The last five pages of the 479-page bill includes a provision to allow oil and natural gas companies to drill in the refuge.

"I believe in the Teddy Roosevelt model that conservatism applies to our natural resources as well," Sanford said Monday. "The idea of exploiting or using those resources is at odds with what it means to be conservative."

Sanford said he will fight the provision even though he admits "The sentiment 'drill baby drill' is still the sentiment of the caucus. It’s tough."

Covering 19.3 million acres in Alaska's North Slope, the refuge is approximately the size of South Carolina and has been federally protected since 1960. It is also the largest national wildlife refuge in the United States, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Both of South Carolina's Republican senators, Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, voted in favor of the Senate tax bill and, by proxy, in favor of an oil and gas leasing program. Republicans still have to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate versions of the tax bill. The House bill did not include this provision.

"Sen. Graham has been a long-time supporter of opening ANWR to exploration,"  said Kevin Bishop, a Graham spokesman.

A statement from Scott's office late Monday defended his weekend vote.

"Senator Scott agrees with nearly three quarters of Alaskans regarding ANWR," said Michele Exner, a spokeswoman for Scott. "It is also a provision that was fully debated and passed by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee with bipartisan support. This has the potential to both strengthen our national security and create hundreds of thousands of jobs for hardworking American families." 

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Republican state Rep. Katie Arrington, of Summerville, disagrees with Sanford. She's also one of two candidates vying to replace him in Congress next year. 

"I support drilling in these oil-rich remote acres in Alaska, tax reform that allows Americans to keep more of their hard-earned money and President Trump's efforts to drain the swamp in Washington starting with Mark Sanford," Arrington said Monday.

Democrat Joe Cunningham, who is also running to represent South Carolina's 1st Congressional District, sided with Sanford on the drilling question but not on the tax cut bill.

"I'm not sure what taxes have to do with drilling in the Arctic but I’m against drilling in the Arctic and off South Carolina’s coast," Cunningham said in a statement provided to The Post and Courier. "I’m also against this horrible tax increase that Mark Sanford voted for. He calls himself a deficit hawk, but this tax scam adds over a trillion dollars to the debt and raises taxes on middle class families in the Lowcountry."

He believes it is possible to protect and preserve our environment, while simultaneously looking for ways to boost our economy.”

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.

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