WASHINGTON – White House officials urged Kuwait (search) and the United Arab Emirates (search) to try to reverse OPEC's (search) decision Wednesday to reduce oil production, a move sure to drive up gas prices and intensify a volatile election-year issue. Both countries already had opposed the production cut.
President Bush expressed disappointment with the decision by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (search) to cut its production target by 4 percent. Bush's spokesman blamed Senate Democrats for stalling Bush's plan to drill for more domestic oil and to conserve energy.
White House press secretaryScott McClellan (search) said the administration was in steady contact with officials in oil-producing countries, arguing that "producers should not take steps that harm American consumers and our economy."
The White House and the Bush re-election campaign went after Democratic John Kerry (search), contending that the party's presumptive nominee for president would raise gas taxes.
Kerry once mentioned in a newspaper interview the idea of an additional 50-cent-per-gallon federal gasoline tax. He never offered legislation for such a tax and has since rejected the idea. Still, the Bush campaign has seized on the comment in recent days.
"That would cost you another $5 or more every time you fill up the tank," Bush told donors at a fund-raiser Wednesday night. "For that kind of money at least he ought to offer a free car wash."
The re-election team arranged events in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Wisconsin to highlight the effect on ordinary citizens if gas taxes were to climb even more. It is also airing a television commercial saying Kerry has supported increasing gas taxes in the past.
Kerry, in a statement Wednesday, blamed high gas prices on what he said was Bush's failure at diplomacy.
"In 2000, Bill Richardson went to OPEC leaders and successfully worked with those countries to increase production and decrease the price of gas for American consumers," Kerry said, referring to President Clinton's energy secretary.
"Today, George Bush was unable to achieve that same goal. Not only has George Bush let the gas prices spiral out of control, but he's squandered America's ability to do anything about it," the Democrat said.
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice (search) talked with Kuwait's foreign minister, Sheik Mohammed Al Sabah, about OPEC during a previously scheduled meeting marking that country's designation as a major non-NATO ally.
White House officials also called the emirates' ambassador, Asri Said Ahmad al-Dhahiri.
Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates had proposed postponing the production cut, but Saudi Arabian Oil Minister Ali Naimi and the majority of ministers prevailed in their effort to reduce the ceiling to 23.5 million barrels per day.
"I affirmed our position that higher oil prices at this stage, especially at this level, is not something that my government would like to see," the Kuwaiti foreign minister said after meeting with Rice. "This is not in the best interest of Kuwait," because economic instability could threaten international financial markets, where Kuwait is heavily invested, he said.
In 2000, candidate Bush had pledged a get-tough response to higher oil prices from OPEC.
"What I think the president ought to do," he said in January 2000 in New Hampshire, where heating oil prices were soaring, "is he ought to get on the phone with the OPEC cartel and say, 'We expect you to open your spigots!'"
Wednesday, the president confined his efforts to the public statement of disappointment, and let aides take up the matter with like-minded Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Bush did not telephone foreign leaders himself. The White House said officials had spoken recently to Saudi Arabian officials.
McClellan said Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham (search) were talking to counterparts in oil-producing countries, but officials in those departments declined to identify them.
McClellan blamed Senate Democrats for blocking Bush's energy plan for three years. Without Bush's plan to increase petroleum drilling and energy conservation, "we continue to go from crisis to crisis," McClellan said. Although Bush's fellow Republicans control the House and Senate, Democrats have used "procedural moves" to block the plan, he complained.
A recent Energy Department analysis said that even if Congress had agreed to drilling in Alaska, a major element of Bush's energy plan, the impact on oil prices would be less than 50 cents a barrel.
The White House said Bush will not stop pumping oil into the nation's strategic reserves because the effect on prices would be negligible and the reserves need to be brought to full capacity.
Kerry has called on Bush to divert that oil to the marketplace and urged the administration to pressure OPEC into providing more. Bush has done nothing with OPEC to reduce prices, Kerry said.