Congress Eyes Answers to Rising Gas Prices

The Senate votes to suspend oil shipments to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve for the rest of the year. A House vote is expected later Tuesday. The move could have a marginal impact on gas prices.

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NOAH ADAMS, Host:

Today in Washington on Capitol Hill, most Republicans join Democrats in defying President Bush and his energy policy. The Senate voted to stop filling the strategic petroleum reserve for the rest of the year.

Later today, the House is expected to do likewise. The president wants to continue sending at least 70,000 barrels of oil a day into that reserve.

As NPR's David Welna reports, lawmakers are arguing that putting the oil on the market could help push down gas prices.

DAVID WELNA: If you're wondering why the House and Senate would take action the same day to provide some relief at the gas pump, just listen to the Senate's number two Democrat, Dick Durbin.

DICK DURBIN: And people asked senators and congressmen, listen, you're supposed to be the bigwigs here, you're supposed to be so influential, why haven't you done something? The gas prices are killing us.

WELNA: And, members of Congress worry, gas prices could kill their hopes for reelection in November unless they're seen doing something, and fast. So as an amendment to a flood insurance bill, North Dakota Democratic senator Byron Dorgan proposed filling up gas tanks with the oil that's right now flowing into a reserve already holding more than 700 million barrels of oil, what the U.S. consumes in two months.

BYRON DORGAN: The strategic petroleum reserve is 97 percent filled. Now, the question is this, with oil at $126 a barrel, and gasoline around $4 or headed towards $4 and above, with the American consumer being burned with a stake, why should its government be carrying the wood? Why on earth should we be putting oil underground at a time of record-high prices?

WELNA: President Bush did suspend oil shipments to the reserve twice when oil prices were much lower. But he maintains now that doing so again would have little effect on gas prices. That's at odds with the GOP's presumed presidential nominee John McCain, who backs a moratorium on stockpiling more oil.

Many Republicans have broken ranks with the president and fallen in step with McCain. New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici is one of them.

PETE DOMENICI: I make no bones about it. Now, this is no big energy policy, this is one little thing we can do and I think we ought to go ahead and do it.

WELNA: Democratic presidential contenders Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both broke away from the campaign trail to vote in favor. Vermont Independent, Bernie Sanders, hailed the outcome.

BERNIE SANDERS: What it should tell every American is that the members of the United States Senate are catching on. It wasn't but a few weeks ago when many of the senators - well, no, I'm not going to support the legislation. Well, we just got 97 votes.

WELNA: In the House, Texas Republican Joe Barton predicted the suspending the oil shipments to the Strategic Reserve might shave off only $.02 from the price of the gallon of gas.

JOE BARTON: I don't think this bill does anything except show the American people that we want to do something, but we still don't know exactly what it is we can do that makes any sense.

WELNA: Senate Republicans proposed in a separate bill to vastly expand oil drilling in protected federal areas. It lost in a 42-56 vote.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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