Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Capitol Hill Republicans yesterday begrudgingly broke with President Bush over oil policy, joining a lopsided vote to stop the government from filling the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, in hopes of slightly reducing sky-high gasoline prices.

Cognizant of massive Republican defections, Mr. Bush reportedly is rethinking his opposition to the plan, which Democrats pushed in an election-year effort to reduce prices at the pump.

Republican leaders attempted to recast the vote as a referendum on supply-side fixes to the country’s energy woes, such as the party’s proposal to curb dependence on foreign oil with more offshore oil rigs and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said the overwhelming support for the measure demonstrates that Democrats “led the charge against one of the root causes of skyrocketing oil and gas prices.”

“Instead of hiding barrels of oil in the nearly full Strategic Petroleum Reserve, we want to put them on the market to increase supply and lower prices,” Mr. Reid said. “It is a good first step, but with oil and gas prices continuing to break record highs every day, much more needs to be done.”

Mr. Reid encouraged Republicans to abandon their “drill, drill, drill” energy plan, and to back the Democrats’ proposals to end tax breaks for the oil industry and increase spending to develop renewable energy.

Senate Republican legislation for more domestic oil drilling died yesterday in a 56-42 procedural vote, falling 18 votes short of the 60 required to survive.

House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, voted for the measure. He said he did not think it would lower gasoline prices but reasoned that it would undermine Democrats’ arguments against more domestic drilling.

“By them bringing this bill up, they admit that supply is a problem. They’ve done nothing to improve the supply. All they’ve done is block us for the last 13 years,” he said of Democrats’ long-standing opposition to expanded domestic oil exploration.

The Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which was created in the aftermath of the 1973 oil embargo, is the world’s largest stockpile of government-owned emergency crude oil.

Mr. Bush, who a week ago derided the plan to halt shipments to the reserve as ineffective, yesterday said he will re-examine the proposal.

“We’ll look at that,” Mr. Bush said in an interview with Politico. “I have analyzed the issue, and I don’t think it would affect price. The purchases for SPR account for one-tenth of one percent of global demand.”

A White House spokesman said that after stopping deposits for the summer of 2006 after Hurricane Katrina, the White House concluded that it did not have an effect.

The federal government deposits about 70,000 barrels of oil a day into the reserve, which is now 97 percent full. The U.S. imports about 12 million barrels a day and consumes about 20 million barrels a day. The worldwide demand is 85 million barrels a day.

White House officials said deposits to the reserve have to be measured against global demand and not just U.S. consumption.

Sen. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, who is stepping down this year, said on the Senate floor before the vote that he wanted his Republican colleagues to know he switched his position from opponent to supporter of the measure in the past few weeks because of record-breaking oil prices.

“Make no bones about it,” Mr. Domenici said. “This is no big energy policy. This is one little thing we can do, and I think we ought to go ahead and do it.”

The Senate bill to stop shipments to the oil reserve for the rest of the year passed 97-1 with Republican Sen. Wayne Allard of Colorado casting the sole vote against it.

Mr. Allard, who is relinquishing his seat at year’s end, denounced the legislation as “a disservice to the American people” because it did nothing to increase domestic production or decrease dependence on foreign oil.

An identical House bill passed 385-25 with Republicans casting all the opposing votes.

The legislation will be delayed in reaching the president’s desk because the Senate measure passed as an amendment to a flood-insurance bill that must be reconciled with a companion House bill before a final vote.

Mr. Reid tried to pass a stand-alone bill to temporarily stop shipments to the petroleum reserve.

The House was scheduled later yesterday to take up an identical stand-alone bill that could have been sent directly to Mr. Bush’s desk, but a Republican senator blocked the move.

c Jon Ward contributed to this report.

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