An escalating political war over gasoline prices boiled over on a rainy Wednesday in Washington as lawmakers from both sides of the aisle—and all over the Capitol—jumped on the issue to hone their election-year messaging.
The volatile topic was the focus of press conferences and floor speeches throughout the day, and even found its way into a House Financial Services Committee hearing featuring Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.
Democrats increased their calls for President Obama to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to crack down on Wall Street speculators to help ease the upward pressure on fuel prices.
On the other side of the aisle, Senate Republicans on Wednesday redoubled their attacks on President Obama for high gas prices. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., took to the floor Wednesday morning to accuse the president of double-talk on everything from offshore oil drilling to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
“The hypocrisy here is stunning,” McConnell said. “I mean, how could a White House that is single-handedly blocking one half of the pipeline to appease an extreme segment of its political base now claim to support the southern half of the same pipeline?”
McConnell was referring to news this week that the company seeking to build the cross-border Keystone pipeline, TransCanada, will start construction of a section in the U.S. from Oklahoma to the Gulf Coast. The White House issued a statement in support of the plan after it was announced on Monday.
Obama rejected a permit for the entire 1,700-mile pipeline in January because he said a GOP-forced deadline for a decision was both rushed and arbitrary. Republicans have been kicking the decision as a political football ever since, especially as gas prices have steadily risen in the past several weeks. The average price of gasoline nationally was $3.73 per gallon on Wednesday, up 15 cents from a week ago and 31 cents from a month ago, according to AAA.
“With gas prices skyrocketing and growing turmoil in the Middle East, we can’t afford another year of foot-dragging,” McConnell said. “It’s time for the president to move quickly to approve the entire Keystone XL Pipeline. This is a no-brainer.”
But key Democrats insisted on Wednesday that other forces are at work.
“This is not a question of supply and demand. It’s a question of fear and greed,” said House Natural Resources Committee ranking member Edward Markey during a press conference with fellow Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Barney Frank, ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee.
Markey and Frank outlined a three-step plan for protecting consumers from gasoline price spikes: release emergency reserves, continue shifting to fuel-efficient vehicles and clean-energy alternatives, and place limits on oil-price speculation as mandated in the Dodd-Frank financial-reform law.
“It is time to shut down this crude-oil casino,” Markey said.
Frank also argued that Obama should increase domestic oil supplies by tapping into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. “Something happens when you become elected president — you get told that the Strategic Petroleum Reserve is this precious jewel,” he said. “Taking money out of the SPR is not rape and plunder."
The reserve is designated for emergencies, and has been tapped three times: President George H.W. Bush authorized an emergency release during the first Gulf War in 1991, President George W. Bush released 11 million barrels in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, and Obama tapped the reserve last June, in coordination with the International Energy Agency, to offset disruption in the oil supply caused by unrest in the Middle East.
Senate Republicans added to the frenzy over fuel prices at a press conference on Wednesday afternoon. They criticized Obama’s case for an “all of the above” energy strategy, saying that without the Keystone pipeline, expanded drilling in Alaska and in offshore areas, and streamlined permitting for oil and gas development, the White House strategy is actually “none of the above.”
“When are we actually going to do ‘all of the above’ instead of just saying it?” asked Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.
“Drilling is not the whole answer, but it is clearly a part of the solution,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “If we don’t take the first step, if we don’t try to do more as a country, we will never get there.”
During a hearing before the House Financial Services Committee, Bernanke argued that high oil prices do threaten to add to inflation, but only temporarily and that the overall effect of price increases would remain “subdued.”