Dems hope deficit is trump card in fight over oil industry tax breaks

Leading Senate Democrats have coalesced around a political strategy in their uphill battle to repeal billions of dollars in oil industry tax breaks: Make it all about the deficit.

Caucus leaders and several politically vulnerable members unveiled legislation Tuesday that would repeal $21 billion worth of tax breaks over a decade for the largest oil companies.

All the savings would be steered toward deficit reduction, which Democrats made their top talking point as they baited GOP foes on nixing the incentives.

“If you are serious about deficit reduction and you say Big Oil’s tax breaks are off limits, how serious can you be?” said Sen. Charles SchumerCharles SchumerDems' Florida Senate primary nears its bitter end Trump was wrong: Kaine is a liberal in a moderate's clothing Trump poised to betray primary supporters on immigration MORE (N.Y.), a key strategist for Senate Democrats.

Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidMcConnell: Changes coming to ObamaCare next year Will there be a 50-50 Senate next year? Murphy wins Florida Senate primary, setting up showdown with Rubio MORE (D-Nev.) vowed to open floor debate this week and said he’s eyeing a vote “in the next week.”

Democrats facing tough reelection battles next year — such as Sens. Claire McCaskillClaire McCaskillSenate Dem: You can say Trump and his 'friend' Putin founded ISIS Sunday shows preview: Trump's tough week McCaskill blasts Gingrich for comparing Trump to Truman MORE (Mo.) and Sherrod BrownSherrod BrownLame duck TPP vote could be disastrous for Dems—and America The Trail 2016: Her big night Kaine as Clinton's VP pick sells out progressive wing of party MORE (Ohio) — hewed to a line similar to Schumer’s at a press conference announcing the bill.

“If we can’t remove subsidies from these profitable big oil companies, then I don’t know if we can ever get to the really difficult work that lies ahead,” McCaskill said. “This ought to be the essence of low-hanging fruit.”

Other lead sponsors include Sens. Jon TesterJon TesterSenators weigh in on FCC's business internet reform plans Senate Dems push Obama for more Iran transparency Bayh jumps into Indiana Senate race MORE (D-Mont.), who is also politically vulnerable in next year’s election, and Robert MenendezRobert MenendezConfirm Julien Neals for the district of New Jersey Puerto Rico task force asks for help in charting island's economic course Tim Kaine backs call to boost funding for Israeli missile defense MORE (D-N.J.).

A White House spokesman praised the bill. 

“The president has been clear that we need to end unwarranted tax breaks for oil and gas companies. The bottom line is that there are more responsible ways to spend billions in taxpayer dollars than handing them out to oil and gas companies that just posted huge profits. We consider this bill an important step,” spokesman Clark Stevens said.

The Democrats’ strategy could also be a way to pressure Republicans into supporting the legislation, because it addresses two top issues among voters — anger at oil companies over gas prices and the federal deficit.

Still, the strategy isn’t a sure thing. It is drawing attacks from Republicans as well as Democrats who support the oil industry.

The opposition highlights the difficulty of making the measure something other than a political messaging vehicle amid high gas prices and flush industry coffers. Recent Senate efforts to nix oil industry incentives fell well short last February and in June 2010.

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynThe Hill's 12:30 Report Top Republican questions Lynch on Clinton Foundation probe Baby dies of Zika in Texas MORE (Texas), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told reporters Tuesday that the plans would harm domestic oil producers at consumers’ expense.

“It doesn’t apply to state-owned oil companies from Saudi Arabia or China or around the world, and it disadvantages domestic producers, and of course they can’t absorb those taxes; they get passed along to consumers,” he said.

Sen. Mary LandrieuMary LandrieuFive reasons the Trump campaign is in deep trouble Louisiana gov: Trump helped 'shine a spotlight' on flood recovery Giuliani: Trump 'more presidential' than Obama in Louisiana visit MORE (D-La.), a strong ally of her home state’s oil industry, also criticized the plan and said she would not vote for it “under any circumstance.”

The Democrats’ bill would seek to end several deductions for a handful of major oil companies such as Exxon, Chevron and BP.

It ends their ability to claim a deduction on domestic manufacturing and production income, and prevents expensing of so-called intangible drilling costs, among other provisions.

Andrew Restuccia contributed reporting.