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Debate Over Rising Gas Prices Heats Up in Congress

May 18, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Two bills focused on oil company tax breaks, deep-sea drilling and reducing rising gas prices have reignited energy policy debates on Capitol Hill. Congressional correspondent Kwame Holman reports on the political fight over prices at the pump.

JIM LEHRER: Next, the political fight over rising gas prices.

NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman has our report.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Senate tussle over oil policy turns today to a Republican plan to increase domestic production in the face of $4-a-gallon gas.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-Ky.: Every single American is feeling the pain at the pump, Democrats and Republicans alike. It’s time for the two parties to come together and get serious about results.

KWAME HOLMAN: The GOP proposal would force the Interior Department to go ahead and sell offshore oil leases in the Gulf of Mexico, Virginia and Alaska, and permit requests would have to be reviewed within 60 days, or they would be approved automatically.

Democrats dismissed the Republican bill. Majority Whip Dick Durbin said it would do little to achieve its stated purpose of relieving pain at the pump.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN, D-ILL.: If you take a look at all the known oil reserves in the United States, offshore and onshore, all of them, they comprise 2 percent of the known oil reserves in the world, 2 percent. So, the Republican answer is drill, baby, drill. Honestly, that’s not going to solve the problem.

KWAME HOLMAN: Kan. Sen. Pat Roberts and other Republicans rejected that logic. They insisted opening more U.S. oil fields would make a difference.

SEN. PAT ROBERTS, R-Kan.: If we can allow greater access to own domestic resources and provide industry the necessary tools to expand, which is exactly what Leader McConnell’s energy bill would do, then we will be able to put more Americans back to work, add to the global supply of crude, which, over time, will undoubtedly help stabilize prices.

KWAME HOLMAN: Mindful of last year’s Gulf oil disaster, the Republican plan also included safety steps such as requiring lessees to develop spill response and containment plans.

But New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez argued that, in fact, Republicans are ignoring the lessons from that catastrophe.

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ, D-N.J.: This reckless bill would allow drilling in sensitive coastal areas, even though current safety and oversight laws have been deemed to be inadequate to prevent a repeat of the Gulf disaster.

So, I ask you, Mr. President, have we learned nothing?

KWAME HOLMAN: The Obama administration also cited environmental concerns in opposing the bill. At the same time, the president used his weekly address last Saturday to call for expanded drilling.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I am directing the Department of Interior to conduct annual lease sales in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve, while respecting sensitive areas, and to speed up the evaluation of oil and gas resources in the mid and south Atlantic.

KWAME HOLMAN: Back in the Senate, the Republican bill ultimately fell 18 votes shy of the 60 needed to advance today.

Senate Democrats failed in their effort to move forward yesterday on a bill that would have eliminated $21 billion in tax breaks for the top five oil companies over the next decade. The bill’s supporters argued it was time for the industry to pay its fair share.

Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill said Americans need to hear why the companies can’t spare $2 billion a year.

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL, D-Mo.: How do you explain to them that we think that, instead of $125 billion — instead of $123 billion of profit big oil’s going to make this year, they need to make $125 billion?

KWAME HOLMAN: In turn, Texas Republican John Cornyn accused Democrats of trying to score political points, instead of addressing the real issue.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN, R-Texas: This is not an energy strategy. This is a public relations strategy. This is a, “How do I get reelected?” strategy. It doesn’t solve the problem or the pain that Americans are feeling at the pump.

KWAME HOLMAN: Democratic leaders have said they will have another go at repealing the oil tax breaks as part of a broader deficit-reduction plan to be considered later this year.