By Alexander Bolton - 02/29/12 02:45 AM EST
Congressional Democrats are ramping up pressure on President Obama to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) to prevent rising gas prices from threatening the economy and their election-year prospects.
They are growing anxious that the price of fuel could reverse their political fortunes, which had been improving due to signs of growth in the economy.
Republicans have hammered Democrats on the price spike, repeatedly noting that gas prices — now at $3.72 per gallon for regular — have doubled since Obama won the White House.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said the price increase “isn’t simply the result of forces we can’t control. It is to a large extent the result of a vision that this president laid out even before he was elected to office.”
Democrats argue the price surge reflects the gathering strength of the economy, which has boosted demand for fuel. Still, they worry the issue could become a liability in the fall.
Senior Democratic lawmakers and vulnerable incumbents want Obama to consider releasing tens of millions of barrels of oil stored in the SPR’s special salt caverns along the Gulf Coast.
“We may need it because this is a central issue to economic recovery. I don’t rule that out if there isn’t a move in the right direction,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the second-ranking Democratic leader in the upper chamber.
“If it’s going to jeopardize economic recovery, the president should seriously consider it,” Durbin added.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who is facing a tough reelection race, said Obama should consider tapping the reserve along with other strategies to boost domestic oil supplies, such as approving construction of the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline from Montana to Texas.
Another vulnerable incumbent, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), said, “I’m OK with that” when asked about the president tapping the emergency stockpile.
Last year, Obama released 30 million barrels of oil from the reserve as part of an international agreement to compensate for the disruption of oil production in Libya.
Democrats say the president should act again because uncertainty over Iran’s supply threatens to create another price spike.
“I think they should consider that as they did under Libya where there was an international effort with our allies. That has to be an option on the table,” said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who added that uncertainty about a possible Israeli strike against Iran has increased “geopolitical risk.”
Republican leaders pushed back, arguing it would be irresponsible to use oil that is set aside for national emergencies.
“The [SPR] is there for an emergency situation. You have to ask the question: If there were release from the [SPR], would it have the desired effect, and how long would it have the desired effect?” McConnell said.
Republicans say Obama should lift restrictions on domestic oil-and-gas drilling if he’s serious about lowering prices.
Obama tried to pre-empt the GOP attack last week as oil surged above $109 a barrel. Speaking at the University of Miami on Thursday, Obama dismissed the Republican claim that expanded drilling would lower prices at the pump.
“You can bet that since it’s an election year, they’re already dusting off their three-point plan for $2 gas. And I’ll save you the suspense. Step one is to drill, and step two is to drill. And then step three is to keep drilling,” Obama said.
“First of all, while there are no silver bullets short term when it comes to gas prices — and anybody who says otherwise isn’t telling the truth — I have directed my administration to look for every single area where we can make an impact and help consumers in the months ahead,” he added.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told CNBC on Friday that the administration could tap the reserve, and a White House spokesman said nothing is off the table when it comes to reducing high gas prices.
Some Democratic leaders, however, have declined to push the administration.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) hedged when asked about pulling from the reserve.
“We know that that’s to be used in case of an emergency,” Reid said. “As the president said in his remarks just the other day, there’s no easy fix. There’s no easy fix. We’re going to do anything that we can that’s reasonable to try to lessen our dependence on foreign oil.”
In June, Reid applauded Obama’s decision to use emergency oil reserves to keep prices in check.
“This decision should calm the markets, lower prices and provide some relief for Americans whose wallets are already strained by record prices at the pump,” he said.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the third-ranking member of the Senate Democratic leadership, last year pushed Obama to release oil from the reserve, but now has taken a different tack. He wants Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to press Saudi Arabia to boost its production in case Iran cuts supply.
“The SPR is not as good a solution as the Saudi solution, and that’s for a couple of reasons. First, it’s limited,” he said on CNBC Tuesday. “The Saudis and the Gulf states could produce an additional 2.8 million barrels of oil way on into the future. The SPR is somewhat limited. And the SPR works better when there’s an immediate crisis.”
Schumer said he would support Obama tapping the reserve if the Saudis refuse to increase production.
— Russell Berman contributed to this report.