Democrats putting heat on GOP over oil companies

The White House and its Democratic allies in Congress are launching a campaign to tie Republicans to deeply unpopular oil companies as gas prices continue to surge, nearing $4 a gallon this week amid reports of gangbuster profits by energy companies.

Senate Democrats will push forward as early as next week with a bill to end more than $4 billion in annual subsidies to oil and gas companies over Republican objections that the legislation could cost jobs. The bill’s immediate prospects look dim because it is unlikely to win passage in the Republican-dominated House.

In recent days, Democrats have targeted the GOP for its opposition. Playing on the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, the House Democratic Campaign Committee launched a Web site featuring the image of House Speaker John A. Boehner’s head atop a royal gown, announcing the “R-Oil Wedding ... the sacred and lasting union between the Republican Party and Big Oil.”

President Obama began the week by pressing Boehner (R-Ohio) to agree that the tax subsidies should be rolled back. Republicans responded by arguing that Obama has blocked measures to generate new domestic sources of oil that could bring down the price of gas. They said that eliminating the tax breaks could destroy jobs while doing nothing to bring down the price of fuel.

The actions by the White House and allies come as Obama, already facing public discontent over high unemployment, is at risk of being blamed for the jump in oil prices.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that the spike in gas prices is eating away at the president’s popularity. In a hypothetical matchup with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the GOP front-runner in the Post-ABC poll, Romney wins by 24 points among independents who have taken a severe financial hit because of the increase.

Obama acknowledged the problem last week at a fundraiser, saying, “My poll numbers go up and down depending on the latest crisis, and right now gas prices are weighing heavily on people.”

Republicans have sought to exploit the vulnerability. GOP presidential candidates joined congressional Republicans this week in criticizing Obama.

“If people thought the country was heading in the wrong direction, this has just made it worse,” GOP pollster David Winston said.

Republicans stress that Democrats have unsuccessfully tried to tie them to oil companies every time fuel prices have risen.

“When drivers are paying four bucks a gallon, no amount of political scapegoating is going to distract them from the administration’s sustained effort to block and slow the production of American energy,” said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Boehner.

By raising the issue of tax subsidies, White House officials say they’re addressing the need for new tax revenues while investing in vital areas.

“The Republicans have a policy that makes no sense, particularly in this fiscal environment — rewarding oil companies with tax breaks while slashing funding for clean energy, which would reduce our dependence on foreign oil,” said Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s communications director.

A McClatchy-Marist poll this month reported that far more Americans blame oil companies for surging prices than either political party.

Exxon Mobil — which reported Thursday that its profit rose 69 percent to $10.65 billion during the first three months of the year — shot back this week at the debate consuming Washington.

“We understand that it’s simply too irresistible for many politicians in times of high oil prices and high earnings — they feel they have to demonize our industry,” Kenneth Cohen, Exxon Mobil’s vice president for public and global affairs, said in a conference call with analysts. He added that there has been “predictable political positioning but no action to actually help bring down energy prices.”

Obama’s actions have consisted of announcing a long-term plan last month to move to clean energy and reduce the nation’s reliance on foreign oil, and naming a task force to investigate potential ma­nipu­la­tion in the energy market.

The proposals are not new. Previous presidents who faced rising oil prices have called for the same measures, and neither has ever had much immediate effect.

Obama faces pressure from Democrats, including Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and Rep. Edward J. Markey (Mass.), to tap the nation’s emergency oil reserves to help bring down the price of fuel. The president so far has resisted doing so.

“The idea that we can’t use it to stabilize prices for consumers baffles me,” said Philip K. Verleger Jr., an oil analyst who helped draft legislation creating the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in the 1970s.

The debate over oil prices began this week when Boehner told ABC News that “we gotta take a look” at tax subsidies for oil and gas companies. Advisers said he meant to say he wanted to look at whether rolling back those subsidies would cost jobs or raise energy prices, according to aides, but Obama quickly seized on the words.

The president fired off a letter to Congress urging ”immediate action,” saying he was “heartened” by the speaker’s comments.

Staff writer Steven Mufson, director of polling Jon Cohen and polling manager Peyton Craighill contributed to this report.

Zachary A. Goldfarb is policy editor at The Washington Post.
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