Parties Face Internal Strife Over Oil Moves

Posted July 16, 2008 at 6:32pm

Both parties in the House faced internal divisions over how best to deal with soaring gas prices Wednesday, with Republicans split over Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) proposal to release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, while Pelosi faces growing pressure from Democrats who want her to allow votes on opening up more areas to oil drilling.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.) came out hard against Pelosi’s proposal to release a small portion of the nation’s 700-million-barrel reserve, arguing that now is not the time to take such a step with the potential for conflict between Israel and Iran.

“With all of this chatter about Israel and Iran, the last thing we should do is take oil out of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve,” Boehner said, adding that the strategic reserve should be used only for emergencies. Boehner said selling 75 million barrels, about 10 percent of the reserve, amounts to about a three-day supply for the United States and less than one day of the 85 million barrel world market.

“It would have no impact,” he said. “I think it’s a mistake and I would never vote for it.”

Putnam added, “It would be a terrible idea to make a one-time release for political reasons.”

President Bush also brushed aside the idea during his Tuesday press conference, blaming Democrats for refusing to open up more land for drilling and saying the SPR is reserved for emergencies.

But a number of Republicans have spoken out in favor of releasing some of the reserves as a way to scare off oil speculators and provide immediate relief — echoing Pelosi’s arguments.

Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) said he and a bipartisan group of Members have sent a letter to Bush asking him to consider the idea.

“It’s hard to regulate speculators,” he said. “But one of the best ways is to dump supply on the open market. If you release a quarter of the SPR, you will see some speculators retreat.”

Wamp said that with the SPR already full, releasing as much as a third shouldn’t affect national security, noting that a number of releases have been approved previously.

“The speculators are part of the problem that is creating an artificial price,” he said.

Wamp said drivers can’t wait for relief, and he said gas prices at $4 a gallon constitutes an emergency.

“If you are Joe Sixpack in East Tennessee, $4.16 a gallon is unsustainable and every bit a crisis,” he said.

Democrats pounced on the Republican opposition to SPR releases.

“If you’re opposed to this, you’re in the Phil Gramm school on the economy, that the economic crisis is in your head,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said.

“If Mr. Boehner doesn’t think this is a real emergency, he should talk to families who are struggling to fill up their gas tanks,” a Democratic leadership aide said.

Pelosi’s staff also noted that the biggest one-day drop in gas prices in history came when the first President Bush released oil from the SPR.

But Boehner said the American people want long-term solutions and are starting to realize that Democrats have blocked drilling for decades and Republicans support more exploration.

“All they’re offering are excuses designed to get people thinking about something other than drilling,” Boehner said. “They worship at the altar of radical environmentalists. … A vote in the House on drilling will pass. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it, and I suspect they don’t want to blow up their coalition before the elections.”

Pelosi, meanwhile, continues to face disgruntled members of her Caucus who are growing more queasy over her refusal to allow votes on opening any more acres on or offshore to drilling.

“I think this is still a work in progress,” said Rep. Jim Costa (Calif.), one of the Blue Dog Democrats who urged Pelosi to reconsider her position at a meeting Tuesday night.

“We started the conversation,” he said. “I think we have to use all the energy tools in our energy toolbox. There is a frustration on everybody’s part that we’re not able to come together in a bipartisan way.”

But Costa said it may take even higher prices to get leadership to budge.

“As we speak, things are moving. If we see gas prices move over $5 a gallon by the end of the summer, a lot more things are possible,” he said.

So far, most of the dozens of Democrats who back more drilling have been unwilling to challenge Pelosi by signing onto a discharge petition, and some said they wouldn’t take that extreme step.

“I think we need to do more domestic drilling,” Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) said. But he said he would not challenge Pelosi’s authority to set the agenda.

“Drilling is something that is readily understandable for a lot of people, and my state has benefited from offshore drilling. But I don’t ever second-guess the Speaker’s agenda strategy,” he said.

But some opponents of more drilling predicted Pelosi would hold her ground, despite polls showing strong support from the public.

“It’s a 60-30 issue in my state and we’re still not doing it,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who argued it would do nothing to lower gas prices.

The sparring came as Democrats prepared to bring an energy package to the floor today under suspension that they said would speed leasing in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, boost construction of new Alaska pipelines and enact “use it or lose it” provisions intended to spur faster drilling on land that oil companies already control.

The actual legislation — called the DRILL Act — was not yet available at press time, however, and Republicans declined to say how they would react.

The Bush administration appeared intent on stealing the Democrats’ thunder, announcing Wednesday that it would hold a new round of leases for the National Petroleum Reserve.

Republicans said the move showed that Democratic efforts are redundant.

“Similar to how Democrats brought forth their ‘use it or lose it’ bill without knowing it was already the law of the land, today we’re reminded that the majority’s efforts to ‘unlock’ NPR-A are about as necessary as passing a bill ordering the sun to rise,” House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said.

But Democrats said the Bush move shows they were right to push the issue.

“In addition to the acreage the administration will offer for lease this fall, there are other areas in the NPR-A with completed environmental reviews that could be offered,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said. “Republicans should join us in supporting the DRILL Act tomorrow that will ensure that we quickly and responsibly access our resources.”