- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. John Kerry led his party yesterday in a daylong assault on President Bush over the nation’s record-high gas prices, blaming his administration’s ties to oil companies and his stockpiling of the nation’s petroleum reserves.

“They don’t seem to understand that higher costs in gas and health care and lost jobs affect your lives every day,” the Massachusetts senator said. “Yesterday, gas prices soared to more than $2 a gallon, but this administration still has not done anything to help.”

Mr. Kerry urged the administration to discontinue filling the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) — now at more than 90 percent of capacity — at the current prices of $42 a barrel and send all incoming barrels directly to the marketplace.

White House officials said the prices have gone up because Democrats have obstructed passage of the president’s energy policy for three years, partly because of opposition to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and partly because of related pollution regulations.

“This president, when he came into office, worked to develop a comprehensive energy plan that would reduce our dependence on foreign sources of energy. He has led and acted, and he has called on Congress to act,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

“The American people deserve more than cheap political rhetoric. The American people deserve leadership and action,” he said.

The Republican National Committee, in response to a daylong Democratic onslaught that also involved several Democratic lawmakers and each party’s national committee, released a February 2000 statement from Mr. Kerry.

In it, Mr. Kerry disagreed with Democrats pressuring President Clinton to open up the petroleum reserves, saying a “release is not relevant” and that “it would take months for the oil to get to the market.”

The DNC quickly rebutted with a statement from Mr. Bush in January 2000, when he was Texas governor and Republican presidential front-runner.

Mr. Bush said Mr. Clinton should “jawbone [Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries] members to lower the price” and said “if in fact there is collusion amongst big oil, he ought to intercede there as well.”

Mr. Kerry began the day’s theme at a roundtable discussion in Oregon early yesterday morning, followed by three separate press conferences — one each by Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, a group of seven Democratic senators, and a group of three Democratic governors.

Although Mr. Kerry did not call for the reserves to be tapped yesterday, several Democratic senators did at their meeting.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, authored a resolution calling for the president to stop filling the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and release “a million barrels a day for the next 30 days” to private industry to lower prices.

“Instead of playing our one ace-in-the-hole and releasing oil from the SPR to help cut prices they are buying oil on the market and driving up the prices,” Mr. Schumer said.

Mr. Schumer said he expects a sense of the Senate to reach the floor for a vote in the next two weeks. The other six Democratic senators at the meeting were Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein of California, Ron Wyden of Oregon, Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, and Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland.

Mr. McAuliffe sounded a long-favored theme of the Democrats — that Mr. Bush is a tool of energy companies.

“The Bush administration is in the pocket of big oil,” Mr. McAuliffe said. “When George Bush took office, gas prices averaged $1.51 and now nationally they’re at $2.03. And in some places they’re as high as $3. It’s time to can Bush.”

The national average for regular unleaded gas last week topped $2 for the first time — at $2.017, with $2.03 being the average price for New England and the highest regional average being the $2.24 on the West Coast.

Republicans leaders and the Republican National Committee quickly responded and said Democrats are trying to sell oil for votes.

“I want to join Senator Kerry,” said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, referring to Mr. Kerry’s 2000 remarks that the reserves should not be touched.

Rep. Joe L. Barton, Texas Republican and House Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairman, said removing oil from the reserve under these circumstances would be illegal, since the reserve is specified by law as existing for a national emergency and not as a cushion against oil price increases.

“The idea propounded today of selling off oil in order to manipulate the price of gasoline deserves bipartisan condemnation as transparent and harmful,” he said.

However, he did agree that the nation should stop using oil bought at the current market rate to fill the reserve.

“I strongly support filling the reserve to full capacity, and in a way that respects taxpayers’ money,” he said.

Sen. Pete V. Domenici, New Mexico Republican and Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairman, said that “President Clinton tried this and it failed. He opened SPR in September 2000, the price of oil dropped a few dollars, but prices at the pump dropped only one penny over the next six weeks.”

At their meeting — a conference call — Democratic Govs. Janet Napolitano of Arizona, Jennifer M. Granholm of Michigan and Tom Vilsack of Iowa added Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham to the hit list, condemning him for refusing to stop buying oil for the reserve and for other policies.

“The number of refineries has gone down, not gone up,” Mrs. Napolitano said.

For his part, Mr. Vilsack, chairman of the National Governors Association, asked: “Shouldn’t there be some questions asked about the record profits for oil companies in a time when they say things are tight?”

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