- Associated Press - Thursday, May 12, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Democrats challenged leading oil industry executives Thursday to justify generous tax breaks at a time when people are paying $4 a gallon for gas.

With the CEOs of the five largest oil companies sitting before the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, played a video of a 2005 congressional hearing in which oil company executives said they didn’t need generous tax breaks because oil was selling at $55 a barrel. As the hearing commenced, the price per barrel hovered just below $100.

“You all said you didn’t need them in 2005,” Mr. Wyden said. “You seem to be telling a different story today.”

John Watson, Chevron Corp. chairman and CEO, said the companies don’t want special tax benefits — just the benefits that other industries get.

But what the oil company chiefs had to say was not the goal for majority Democrats eager to demonstrate before the 2012 election that they stand with consumers against oil companies recording large profits with the help of billions of dollars in tax breaks.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, referred to a large portrait of a dog sitting on a pony to illustrate his thoughts of the proceedings.

“All this hearing is about is providing a justification for tax increases,” Mr. Hatch said.

“For the president and some of my colleagues,” he said, “the answer is always raise taxes. Government spends too much? Raise some taxes. Health care too expensive? Raise some taxes. Gas prices too expensive? I’ve got it … Let’s raise some taxes.”

Democrats acknowledged that a bill to repeal the tax breaks for the companies testifying Thursday would not bring down the price of oil at the gas pump. And no one suggested that the legislation has a future beyond a talking point. Republicans have enough votes to block it in the Senate, and the House is controlled by the GOP.

But Democrats insisted that allowing a hugely profitable industry to continue taking billions of dollars in tax breaks is as credible as the notion of a unicorn galloping into the hearing room.

“The issue is who shares” the burden of economic recovery, said Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat and chairman of the committee.

Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat and the author of a bill that would repeal the tax breaks for the companies testifying Thursday, demanded an apology from ConocoPhillips CEO James Mulva for a press release from the company that said in the headline that the tax cut proposals were “un-American.”

Mr. Mulva refused, saying that no personal offense was intended.

“Our industry and company are already taxed heavily compared to other industries in the United States,” Mr. Mulva said.

Flog-the-CEO is a favored tactic of whichever party is in charge on Capitol Hill during a crisis — a reality well known to the powerful chiefs of Big Tobacco, automakers and Wall Street.

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