Anyone looking to Congress for help in lowering gas prices may have to wait awhile.
With prices at the pump surging over $4 a gallon, the House and Senate could hardly be further apart on what to do, even though both are spending this week on energy bills ostensibly designed to address the issue.
Instead, House Republicans and Senate Democrats are pushing political messaging bills that aren’t likely to go anywhere in the other chamber anytime soon.
The showdown over energy appears par for the course as both chambers find themselves similarly at odds over almost every major issue facing Congress, including a must-pass debt limit increase, the budget and immigration.
On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced he would bring up legislation to eliminate oil company tax breaks and use the savings to cut the deficit by $21 billion over the coming decade. Democrats hope the idea will be a political two-fer — it lets them beat up on the five Big Oil companies that are seeing enormous profits this year and attempt to put Republicans on the defense for their plans to overhaul Medicare as a way of balancing the budget.
“Seniors are struggling, oil companies are not struggling, yet Republicans want to keep handing billions of dollars to the oil companies and ending Medicare as we know it,” Reid said Tuesday. “It’s hard to imagine a more backward set of values. Putting seniors ahead of oil companies should be a no-brainer.”
But with opposition from most Republicans and some oil-state Democrats, the idea probably isn’t going to get out of the Senate, let alone become law. House Republicans are passing bills intended to allow more drilling, arguing that the Senate Democratic plan would amount to a tax increase on oil companies and consumers.
“Our legislation will increase the supply of American energy to cut costs for consumers and create jobs,” said Michael Steel, spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). “Democrats are pushing bills to raise taxes — which will increase prices at the pump and destroy American jobs. Our policies make sense, theirs are downright batty.”
Boehner indicated during an ABC News interview last month that a review of oil tax subsidies is “certainly something we should be looking at.” But asked Tuesday whether the Speaker would support the Senate Democrats’ plan, Steel said: “He supports looking at any option to lower gas prices. Unfortunately, the Senate’s tax hike would raise gas prices.”
Josh Freed of Third Way quipped that the two chambers resemble “a married couple with irreconcilable differences.”
“They’re stuck with each other, but on any given day you’re not even certain they’re talking, let alone seeing anything in the same context whatsoever,” he said.
Freed, who directs Third Way’s clean energy program, said neither approach would give consumers immediate relief. He maintained that oil exploration has increased under President Barack Obama and that, ultimately, the issue is one of demand.
“I think voters at this point are so frustrated with this debate replaying and replaying, there is some question as to how much traction any of this is having back at home,” he said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who in the past has tried to forge bipartisan energy deals, said both sides at this point are just pushing their favorite proposals instead of working on a larger package that could become law.
“They want to beat on oil companies, we want to drill. I want a rational energy policy and you can beat on energy companies a little bit, drill a little bit, that’s OK by me,” he said.
Graham said that it’s hard to justify subsidies with oil at more than $100 a barrel but that he doesn’t plan to support the Democratic plan to eliminate them unless it’s part of a larger package.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said he doesn’t see a bipartisan compromise in the works: “not as long as the administration wants to raise taxes on producers, which only disadvantages domestic production. ... I don’t know what you do with people who deny the applicability of the law of supply and demand.”
About the only thing kicking around with a bipartisan push is an effort to crack down on speculators in oil markets. Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) are among those working to rein in stock market speculators, who, the Senators contend, have helped drive up the price of oil.
Other ideas that have at least some bipartisan support include pushing natural gas and electric vehicles, but those initiatives would likely take years to make much of a dent in demand.
“I think what will lower gasoline prices is when Americans can purchase vehicles that run on natural gas or electricity,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who noted that natural gas vehicles can fill up at a cost of about $2 a gallon. “You’ve got to empower the consumer.”
One other idea that has traction among Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), is tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to lower prices.
But Republicans — and Obama — have resisted that idea as well.
“That doesn’t address the problem,” Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) said in an interview Tuesday. The reserve “is there for national disasters like Katrina where you have a short-term limit of supply. Our problem is a long-term limit of supply because of the administration’s policies.”