Senate

Politics of Russian oil ban fuels Democratic angst  

The economic reverberations of a proposed ban on Russian oil and gas imports are fueling angst among Democratic lawmakers who are wrestling with what to do about rising prices, which have mushroomed into a big political problem for President Biden.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers are coalescing behind a proposal sponsored by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to ban Russian energy imports but some Democrats worry it could boomerang on them if it leads to higher inflation.   

Democratic senators say they worry that oil companies could use the ban on Russian imports as an excuse to further increase gas prices and that they’ll wind up getting the blame.  

They also expect Republicans to ratchet up calls to open up federal lands to oil and gas exploration, something Biden and his Democratic allies don’t want to do. Democrats argue that more drilling on federal lands won’t make a difference in fuel prices in the near term.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told reporters Monday that Russian oil and refined products make up close to 10 percent of U.S. energy imports and warned that Republicans are eager to blame the president for rising prices.  

“Now that Europe has made it pretty clear they’re not going to move forward with a Russian oil and gas ban, the impact is much more symbolic. My concern is we do it in a way that mitigates the impact on U.S. consumers. That means we should have plan in place for how we’re going to backfill the 10 percent oil and gas” imports, he said. 

“Let’s just be clear. Republicans are going to cheerlead a ban on Russian oil and gas and then castigate the Biden administration for rising energy prices,” he said. “It’s easy for Washington elites to talk about increasing energy prices. It’s a little bit harder for my families in Connecticut that are making $25,000 a year.”

Murphy clarified that he agrees that it’s “morally reprehensible” to send money to Russia and supports an import ban but wants to be sure “we do it in a thoughtful way.”  

Gas prices hit a new high Monday, reaching $4.10 per gallon, eclipsing the previous record set in 2008.

The proposal to ban Russian imports got a big political boost last week and over the weekend when Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) embraced the idea.  

She told colleagues in a “Dear Colleague” letter over the weekend that the impact of higher gas prices on American families could be offset by tapping into the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve.  

Pelosi in her letter touted a House bill that “would ban the import of Russian oil and energy products” and other sanctions as “standing up for our values abroad.”  

“The Administration and the Congress remain laser-focused on bringing down the higher energy costs for American families and our partners stemming from Putin’s invasion,” she added, addressing colleagues’ worries that a ban could make inflation worse.   

But the Biden administration and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) aren’t yet sold on banning Russian imports, especially when it looks likely that the United States will act alone. European allies have signaled they’re not willing to go that far.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Monday afternoon that Biden hasn’t yet made a decision about whether to support the ban. 

She told reporters last week: “We don’t have a strategic interest in reducing the global supply of energy,” warning “that would raise prices at the gas pump for the American people.” 

A spokesperson for Schumer on Monday said: “We’re looking at the proposal.”  

Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), who supports banning Russian imports, cautioned Monday that it must be carefully considered.  

“It’s a big issue and big decision that has to be considered from a variety of angles,” he said.  

He predicted it could lead to even higher fuel costs because oil companies will seize it as a convenient reason to raise prices. 

“This is not a massive part of our oil supply but I have found with oil companies in the past any excuse will do. You’re likely to see the cost go up,” he said.  

Asked about the lack of support from European allies, Durbin said, “I hope we can convince them. I think we should do it whether they join us or not.”  

Manchin, one of the lead sponsors of the Ban Russian Energy Imports Act, predicted that Biden will support the ban.  

“I think we’re all going to be united,” he said. 

But he acknowledged the administration has concerns about how it will play with allies and affect the global market.

“There’s some caution on that to make sure what happens to the world” isn’t too disruptive, he said. “They’re just wondering how the world market’s going to turn and everything. That’s what they’re concerned about. Some of the European nations have a lot more dependency.”  

Vulnerable Democratic incumbents are rallying behind the proposed ban even though they’re also worried about rising gas prices.  

“Banning Russian oil and gas is a critical next step to undermining Putin’s ability to wage war against a sovereign, democratic nation,” said Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) in a statement Monday.  

Sen. Mark Kelly (Ariz.), another Democratic facing a tough reelection race this year, said Russian imports are “fueling their war effort” and argues a ban would blunt one of Putin’s advantages.  

Hassan and Kelly are also sensitive to the burden felt by middle- and lower-class American families because of rising fuel costs and have co-sponsored legislation to suspend the 18-cent-per-gallon federal gas tax until 2023.  

Their Gas Prices Relief Act, however, has already run into opposition from colleagues who worry about cutting off a key source of funding for the Highway Trust Fund.  

Pelosi warned last week there’s no way to ensure that savings from suspending the gas tax will be passed on to consumers. 

Tags Charles Schumer Chris Murphy Dick Durbin gas prices Jen Psaki Joe Biden Joe Manchin Lisa Murkowski Maggie Hassan Mark Kelly Nancy Pelosi Russia Ukraine

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