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Boehner Plays Down Oil Subsidy Remarks After Dems Seize on Interview

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The price board at a Shell gas station is shown in San Francisco April 11. (AP)

House Speaker John Boehner, a day after saying Congress should consider scaling back tax breaks for big oil companies, appeared to reel in that political olive branch Tuesday as the White House and congressional Democrats seized on his remarks. 

The Republican speaker at first seemed to open the door to negotiations with Democrats, saying in an interview Monday that lawmakers "ought to take a look" at President Obama's call to save billions by ending those benefits. 

Not surprisingly, the White House and its allies applauded Boehner and urged his colleagues to follow suit. Obama fired off a letter Tuesday to congressional leaders saying he was "heartened" to hear Boehner's comments and called for "immediate action to eliminate unwarranted tax breaks for the oil and gas industry" -- a tax trove he values at $4 billion a year. 

But Boehner's office pushed back Tuesday, suggesting the speaker wants to see a more comprehensive approach before signing on to any changes. 

"The speaker wants to increase the supply of American energy and reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and he is only interested in reforms that actually lower energy costs and create American jobs," spokesman Brendan Buck said in a statement. "Unfortunately, what the president has suggested so far would simply raise taxes and increase the price at the pump." 

The response came as Democrats accompanied the White House letter with a string of backhanded compliments. 

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said it was "almost too good to be true" that Boehner realized the "insanity" of giving oil companies tax breaks while gas prices are soaring. He and other Senate Democrats meanwhile slammed rank-and-file Republicans for standing by the "giveaways." 

The crossfire of accusatory statements on Capitol Hill indicated lawmakers hadn't exactly reached a breakthrough on the topic. Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell piled on Tuesday afternoon, releasing a statement saying the "latest call to raise taxes on U.S. energy is as predictable as it is counterproductive." 

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, asked about the possibility of Boehner walking back his remarks, nevertheless described Boehner's original comments as "a recognition of what the president has been saying." 

Boehner, in the interview with ABC News on Monday, said it's time to scrutinize the benefits enjoyed by the country's biggest oil firms. 

"It's certainly something that we ought to be looking at," Boehner said. "They ought to be paying their fair share." 

With the price of gas topping $4 a gallon in many towns across America, Boehner said the oil companies are a popular target. He disputed the notion that they get "extra benefits" and said some of those breaks are important. He suggested that if small, independent energy companies didn't have them, domestic oil exploration would suffer. 

However, as oil giants post big first-quarter profits, he said they bear some of the "blame" for high costs and suggested the major firms might not need the help in the tax code they currently get. 

"They've got to do everything they can to help us produce oil and gas at a lower price," Boehner said. 

He questioned whether some companies need so-called depletion allowances, which allow them to deduct based on the depletion of their reserves. 

"I don't think the big oil companies need to have the oil depletion allowances," Boehner said.