Dems turn the tables on ‘Drill, baby, drill’

Democrats say they learned their lesson from the summer of 2008 and have resolved to go on the offensive to avoid another pummeling over high gas prices.

Rank-and-file Senate Democrats are pushing a variety of proposals to address the soaring cost of gas, which party leaders are considering as they seek policy solutions around which to rally the caucus.

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Democratic leaders have already called on President Obama to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and urged the administration to put pressure on oil companies to expand drilling operations on public lands that are under lease.

Senate Democratic leaders will discuss other proposals to combat rising gas prices at a policy lunch scheduled for Thursday.

One idea comes from Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who wants the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to act immediately to limit excessive price speculation in the oil markets.

Another comes from Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who has urged the State Department to press oil-producing nations to increase their production while the U.S. economy continues to recover from the 2008 financial collapse.

A third idea, put forward by Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), would give the Justice Department authority to prosecute OPEC member nations that collude to boost the price of oil.

“The proposal empowers DOJ to go after foreign countries for collusion on oil pricing — it says OPEC is a monopoly and shouldn’t be given sovereign immunity,” said a Democratic aide familiar with the legislation.

Democrats want to avoid the political damage they suffered during the summer of 2008, when “Drill, baby, drill!” became the unofficial slogan of the GOP presidential nominating convention in St. Paul, Minn.

House Republicans bashed then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for not bringing GOP energy legislation up for a vote in the House.

“In voting to leave town on a five-week August break instead of working with Republicans to lower gas prices ... the Democratic leaders in charge of this Congress once again proved how out of touch they really are,” then-House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) charged at the time.

Democratic polling shows that the price of gas is one of the top concerns of voters across the country.

On Wednesday, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) bashed Democrats on the Senate floor over gas prices, a strategy that proved effective for Republicans two years ago.

“With prices in most states moving closer and closer to $4 a gallon, and already higher in some areas, Americans have a right to know where the president and Democrats in Congress stand on the issue,” McConnell said.

McConnell said, “It’s no accident that gas prices are skyrocketing at a time when Democrats control two-thirds of official Washington.

“It’s no secret that Democrat leaders in Washington don’t particularly care for the issue,” McConnell said, noting that gas prices are “skyrocketing” at a time when Democrats control the White House and Senate. “Ask them about gas prices, and chances are they’ll tell you about some car they plan to build and have ready for production about 25 years down the road.”

Democrats responded immediately with a press conference calling for fees on oil companies that they say are sitting on millions of acres of untapped reserves. Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) along with Charles Schumer (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee, touted a bill that would fine companies $4 for every acre of leased public land or water they have yet to drill.

The proposal is a direct counter to the Republican charge that President Obama has contributed to higher gas prices by limiting drilling leases.

“Over the past two years, the Obama administration has delayed, revoked, suspended or canceled an enormous range of development opportunities,” McConnell said Wednesday.

He noted the Obama administration canceled 77 oil-and-gas leases in Utah in early 2009. It has since shortened lease terms for offshore oil-and-gas production and raised fees for permit applications, McConnell said.

Democrats introduced similar legislation in 2008. The difference this year is that Democratic strategists are unveiling it before the GOP line of attack gains full momentum.

Menendez said oil companies can’t argue that the Obama administration’s handling of drilling leases is the reason for high gas prices while they’re sitting on an estimated 60 million acres of undeveloped public lands.

Menendez said that “new leases aren’t going to produce oil now — you can’t have it both ways.”

Democratic leaders in Congress have also called on Obama to tap the nation’s 727 million-barrel Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

 Democratic leaders say the threat posed to the economic recovery by gas prices is serious enough for the president to access the reserve, stored deep in underground caverns.

“I believe that the time is right,” Schumer said. “It’s not a long-term solution, we know that.”

Schumer said rising gas prices were the most pressing concern of voters he marched with in St. Patrick’s Day parades this week.

 Schumer said he supports tapping the reserve because the armed conflict in Libya has sparked speculation in the oil markets that unrest may spread to Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing nations, creating a supply shortage.

 Dick Durbin (Ill.), the second-ranking member of the Senate Democratic leadership, called on Obama over the weekend to tap the reserve.

“We need to consider moving toward the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to put the oil that we have in reserve into the economy to try to temper this increase in gas prices. This isn’t helping our recovery,” Durbin said in a CNN interview.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has also endorsed the idea. 

“Sen. Reid believes the president should tap the [Strategic Petroleum Reserve] if the supply disruption caused by the unrest in Libya and elsewhere threatens our economy and national security,” said his spokesman.

But GOP leaders have so far rejected the proposal to tap the nation’s strategic oil reserves.

“The problem is not supply, as all the experts will say,” Senate Republican Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) said over the weekend. “Gas prices have doubled under Obama, and one of the reasons is he has not issued drilling permits, including in the Gulf [of Mexico].”

The U.S. Energy Information Administration has concluded that allowing greater access to oil reserves on the Outer Continental Shelf would lower gas prices by about three cents per gallon by the year 2030.