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 (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDemocrats now attack internet rules they once embraced Schumer: Trump budget would ‘cripple’ gun background checks Schumer: Senate Republicans' silence 'deafening' on guns, Russia MORE (N.Y.), a key strategist for Senate Democrats.

Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidWATCH: There is no Trump-Russia collusion and the media should stop pushing this The demise of debate in Congress ‘North by Northwest,’ the Carter Page remake 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 Conner McCaskillMcCaskill welcomes ninth grandson in a row Dem group launches M ad buy to boost vulnerable senators Senate Dems block crackdown on sanctuary cities MORE (Mo.) and Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownLawmaker interest in NAFTA intensifies amid Trump moves Dem senator shares photo praising LeBron James after Laura Ingraham attacks Trump gets recommendation for steep curbs on imported steel, risking trade war 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 TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterWith vote against Brownback, Democrats abandon religious freedom Democrat Manchin: Pence attacks prove ‘they don't want bipartisanship’ in Trump admin Tester invited the Border Patrol Union’s president to the State of the Union. What does that say to Dreamers?   MORE (D-Mont.), who is also politically vulnerable in next year’s election, and Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezJustice Dept intends to re-try Menendez in corruption case DACA is neither bipartisan nor in America's interest Senate DACA deal picks up GOP supporters 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 CornynLawmakers feel pressure on guns Kasich’s campaign website tones down gun language after Florida shooting Murphy: Trump’s support for background check bill shows gun politics ‘shifting rapidly’ 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 Loretta LandrieuProject Veritas at risk of losing fundraising license in New York, AG warns You want to recall John McCain? Good luck, it will be impossible CNN producer on new O'Keefe video: Voters are 'stupid,' Trump is 'crazy' 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.