Seven things to watch for in the political debate over rising gas prices

Rising gas prices have brought another season of political gamesmanship between Republicans and Democrats in Washington.

As of Friday, regular gasoline was averaging about $3.65 a gallon, up about 12 cents from last week and about 21 cents from this time last year.

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An oil analyst told the Associated Press Friday that gas prices could peak in April at $4.25 per gallon.

Republicans, hoping to dash President Obama’s reelection chances, are blaming the White House for soaring prices. Meanwhile, Obama is trying to undercut the attacks by alleging that the GOP is using gas prices for political gain.

It’s a fight that’s certain to intensify through the summer, as prices continue to rise.

Here are seven things to watch:

The SPR wildcard

A small group of liberal Democrats pressed President Obama Wednesday to release oil from the country’s emergency stockpiles in order to lower gas prices, and more voices could emerge.

So far, administration officials have been reluctant to say whether they will tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a 696-million-barrel stockpile of oil stored in salt caverns along the Gulf Coast.

Asked if the administration would consider releasing oil from the SPR Friday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, “We’re not taking anything off the table.”

In an interview on CNBC Friday, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner said tapping the SPR would be a “short-term fix” to high gas prices, but hardly ruled it out.

“[T]here's a case for the use of the reserve in some circumstances and we'll continue to look at those and evaluate that carefully,” Geithner said.



“But, again, the right thing for the country is to make sure we are focused on long-term investments in energy. Change the energy policy to help solve these long-term problems. We can't view this as a problem that can be solved with short-term fixes.”


Tapping the SPR could help lower gas prices in the short-term, a move that could help Obama guard against GOP attacks.

The president released 30 million barrels of oil from the reserve last year to combat supply losses from Libya. Other nations agreed to release their oil reserves in conjunction with the United States.

But Republicans and some Democrats are largely opposed to tapping the SPR, arguing it should only be used to make up for major supply shortages. The GOP roundly criticized Obama for tapping the SPR last year, arguing it was a political ploy.

Economic news – good and bad

President Obama’s political vulnerability over rising gasoline prices will likely rise or fall with the health of the broader economy.

Recent good news on jobs helps insulate the White House politically from rising pump prices.

The economy added 243,000 jobs in January, according to the Labor Department, many more than had been expected. The unemployment rate also dropped from 8.5 percent to 8.3 percent.

But if the news turns sour again, Republicans can use the gas price weapon more effectively.

The Labor Department will report the February jobs numbers on March 9.

Other economic indicators are arriving sooner, including revised Commerce Department estimates for gross domestic product growth in the fourth quarter of 2011. That data will surface Wednesday.

Cabinet secretaries on Capitol Hill

Top Obama administration officials will testify next week on the president’s fiscal 2013 budget request. Expect Republicans to pick a fight with the officials over the president’s energy policies, blaming the administration for high gas prices.

President Obama laid the groundwork this week for the administration’s response to GOP attacks. In a speech at the University of Miami Thursday, Obama alleged that Republicans are using high gas prices to score political points.

He noted that his administration has very little power over gas prices, which are largely tethered to oil prices that are set on the global market. And he cast Republican energy plans as one-dimensional and unrealistic.

“Only in politics do people root for bad news, do they greet bad news so enthusiastically,” Obama said, referring to Republicans.

“You pay more and they’re licking their chops. And you can bet since it’s an election year, they’re already dusting off their three-point plans for $2 gas. I’ll save you the suspense: step one is drill, step two is drill, and then step three is keep drilling.”

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Energy Secretary Steven Chu will each appear before two committees next week, while EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson will testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Iran and oil prices

Tensions over Iran’s nuclear program and recovering economies globally are among the major factors pushing oil prices upward, taking gasoline prices along with them.

An International Atomic Energy Agency report Friday concludes that Iran has ramped up production of enriched uranium, according to several reports.

Oil prices Friday rose to within a few dollars of peaks reached last year, when turmoil in Libya helped send oil prices above $113 per barrel in late April and early May.

The situation is volatile and Israel has not ruled out military strikes aimed at deterring Iran from developing nuclear weapons, a conflict that could send oil prices much higher.

The U.S. does not import crude from Iran but the country is a major supplier to global markets.

Geithner, in the CNBC interview, noted Iran’s significance.

“Well, again, when oil prices are getting stronger, partly because of stronger growth, they're more a reflection of growth but obviously Iran can do a lot of damage to the global economy,” he said.

“And we're working very carefully to try to minimize that risk. Make sure there are alternative sources of supply from Saudi Arabia and others that help compensate for reduced export from Iran. That's an important part of our strategy,” the Treasury secretary added.

Can the Democrats counterpunch?

Lawmakers have plenty vying for their attention these days amid debates over contraception, unsettled transit bill plans and plenty more.

Against this backdrop, the extent to which members of Congress – and the outlets that cover them – remain focused on gas prices will dictate how vigorously administration officials must respond.

By all indications, Republicans don’t want to let go of the issue, and they’ll have some camera-ready chances next week to try and lay blame at President Obama’s feet (see above).

Capitol Hill Democrats, however, are preparing to counterpunch in coming weeks.

A Senate Democratic aide provided The Hill a preview of their upcoming messaging, which includes touting increased U.S. oil production and other issues.

“We plan to show that when [gasoline] is approaching $4 a gallon, oil companies don’t need the extra help from taxpayer subsidies. As a matter of fairness, Republicans should not be continuing to defend this loophole,” the aide said.

“We will say that the only long-run solution is to speed the transition to energy independence by investing in clean energy alternatives to fossil fuels. To that end, we will push for the extension of renewable energy credits that Republicans have let expire and that Republicans refused to include in the payroll tax cut deal,” the aide added.

Across the Capitol, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is increasingly using her PR apparatus to allege that Wall Street speculators – not a lack of U.S. energy development – are behind the price spikes.

The GOP presidential primaries

Republican White House hopefuls are heading for a series of make-or-break primaries.

Along the way they’ve been lurching around topically – social issues including contraception took center stage recently, but Newt Gingrich is trying to revive his faltering campaign by hitting Obama daily on gas prices.

As prices climb, heavy emphasis on gas prices by the GOP field could put the White House on the defensive.

The resurgence of the gas-station press conference

It’s an annual tradition on Capitol Hill: the gas-station photo op.

Standing at a gas station under a sign showing pocketbook-punishing pump prices, lawmakers wave their fingers and blast members of the opposite party for doing nothing to give consumers relief.

The press conferences became a fixture in Washington during the summer of 2008 when gas prices reached an all-time high in the United States.

Last year, Senate Democrats kicked off the season with a May press conference at an Exxon station on Capitol Hill. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) took aim at oil companies, calling for the repeal of billions in tax breaks for the industry.

“You are doing just fine on your own, you don’t need the taxpayer giving you an extra handout to help,” Schumer said.

While the press conferences usually start popping up at the beginning of the summer, this year’s soaring prices could provide the perfect opportunity for holding the events early.