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Sen. Dick Durbin on Gas Price Politics

This is a partial transcript from "Your World with Neil Cavuto," April 26, 2006, that was edited for clarity.

NEIL CAVUTO, HOST: Democrats taking more swipes at the President Bush's gas plan, capitalizing on ample public anger over rising prices at the pump. And now it's getting personal.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON, D-N.Y.: We are one accident or one terrorist attack away from oil at $100 a barrel, not just $75. We have no leadership.

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CAVUTO: Democrats are calling for the rollback of $5 billion in subsidies granted to oil companies. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi also going after oil executives, citing — quote — "their obscene record profits and immoral salaries."

Republicans now firing back, accusing Democrats of being obstructionists by blocking drilling in ANWR. The RNC also pointing out that Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, the two Democratic leaders, voted not once, but several times, to hike the federal gas tax. And on and one we go.

Are lawmakers more focused on political gain in all of this or on solving the nation's gas problem? Let's ask Democratic Dick Durbin of Illinois.

Senator, thanks for coming.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN, D-ILL.: Good to be with you.

CAVUTO: What do you make of Hillary Clinton's remark that we are one event away from $100 oil? Is that a scare tactic, or is there something to what she says?

DURBIN: If you go to the business journals and ask them, is $75 the ceiling for the price of a barrel of oil, they say no. There's no end in sight. There's nothing hold it from going even higher.

And I think what Senator Clinton said is a fact. If there is, God forbid, some emergency or some tragedy, we could see the price of a barrel of oil go up dramatically.

CAVUTO: All right. So, this zeal about trying to do something, you know, you can cast blame, I guess, on both parties, Senator. Democrats didn't do much about this when Bill Clinton was in office. Both parties sort of lagged around on it and only respond when we have these spikes. Who is to say now either party is going to get anything done?

DURBIN: Well, let me suggest, though, that when President Bush was elected president in the year 2000, that, at that moment in time, in November, the average price of a gallon of gasoline was $1.50.

Today, it's almost twice that amount. And, so, under his watch, we have seen a dramatic upsurge in the cost of oil. It's forced airlines into bankruptcy. It has moved a lot of farmers near bankruptcy. And it has really put a hardship on families and businesses, the likes of which we have never seen.

CAVUTO: Are you blaming...

DURBIN: At the same time...

CAVUTO: Wait a minute, Senator. Are you blaming him for that?

DURBIN: I can just tell you, if I can finish, at the same time, the president was pushing his energy policy.

It was Vice President Cheney's inspiration that came up with an energy policy signed by President Bush last August. It hasn't even been in effect for a year. And, since it was signed, the cost of home heating oil and natural gas in the Midwest and the price of gasoline have gone up dramatically. So, if this is their energy policy, it's not working well. I think the president has to accept some responsibility for that.

CAVUTO: Would you and your party accept responsibility, sir, for the fact that, in the mid-1990s, we had a chance to look into tapping in ANWR, and we didn't, that, had we done so then, we could be getting oil from that region now, and at least alleviating this crunch we are in?

(CROSSTALK)

DURBIN: Neil, I just love this magic bullet.

If we could just drill in an Alaskan wilderness area, all our prayers would be answered. All of the production out of ANWR, which would start in about 10 years, for the next 10 years in production, is the equivalent of six months energy supply for America. It is not the answer to our prayers.

CAVUTO: But let's not limit it to there, right, Senator? What if we tap wherever we could find oil here, so we rely less on it over there? What is wrong with that?

DURBIN: Well, let me come up with a radical suggestion.

Why aren't we talking about conservation and fuel efficiency? Why aren't we talking about automobiles and trucks that have more fuel efficiency than the ones we drive today? Why aren't we talking about alternative sources of fuel, whether it's alcohol fuels or bio-diesel? Why do you always have to go to the point where you want to push the envelope on the environment, invade a wilderness area with exploration?

(CROSSTALK)

CAVUTO: I would say touche to you. Open all those ideas.

But what I typically hear from your party is that resistance to looking for oil elsewhere in this country, and Republicans who are equally resistant to some of those conservation measures. You're quite right to point that out. But I don't hear you guys coming together on this issue. And, so, I hear a lot of demagoguery, by the way, on both parties' parts.

(CROSSTALK)

DURBIN: Let me just say this.

I am for environmentally responsible drilling. If you want to drill for oil or gas, at the expense of our natural legacy and heritage, I'm against it. If you want to jeopardize the air that we breathe in this country or the water that we drink, I'm against it.

But I think we can come up with energy sources, environmentally responsible sources. And, then, we have to accept some personal responsibility to buy more fuel-efficient cars and trucks, to start moving toward wind power, solar power, geothermal, alternative fuels, things which have been dismissed with the back of a hand by this administration, which was smitten with the oil company interests. That has to change.

CAVUTO: Although, to be fair to this administration, it was pursuing ethanol when your party pooh-poohed it. I guess the blame again, sir, could go back and forth.

DURBIN: I beg your pardon? I beg your pardon on ethanol? I have been chairman of the Alcohol Fuels Caucus in the House and in the Senate.

(CROSSTALK)

CAVUTO: So, when we had this push, and we had this push for alternative energy, are you saying now that you would be open to explore oil in other regions of this country, if the president were to give in on maybe raising the CAFE standards and some of this other stuff? Do we have common ground there?

DURBIN: Remember what I said?

Environmentally responsible exploration. I just don't think that we should assume that we are so dependent on heavy SUVs that get 10 and 12 miles a gallon, that we are going to go drilling in a wilderness area that President Eisenhower set aside over 50 years ago.

(CROSSTALK)

DURBIN: That, to me, is an act of desperation.

CAVUTO: Senator, do you think, though, with your zeal to save the environment, and some of these blended fuels that we have to have in order to meet those new environmental requirements, that, with the best of intentions, you're the one who is gouging Americans at the pump?

DURBIN: I beg your pardon. No, sir.

CAVUTO: They're paying higher prices for that environmentally blended standard fuel.

DURBIN: Let me tell you, you know, Neil, what you haven't mentioned in the whole show, oil company profits. Why isn't that part of your conversation?

If ExxonMobil has now broken all records, in terms of corporate profits, if their CEO is given a retirement gift of $400 million, doesn't that bother you a little bit to think that the average family and the average is subsidizing that kind of greed?

CAVUTO: Senator, could I ask you this? When crude oil goes up and what they produce is something based on that crude oil, it's not a mystery their profits go up, right? So, you're not against the profits they are making, or are you?

DURBIN: Neil, Neil, I'm not for nationalizing oil, if that's what you are suggesting.

CAVUTO: Then what are you for?

DURBIN: There's no correlation between the increase in the price of a barrel of oil and what we are paying at the pump. And if you want to know why, take a look at the corporate profits of the oil companies.

CAVUTO: So, would you tax those profits?

DURBIN: They're making money hand over fist.

CAVUTO: Would you tax those profits?

DURBIN: Absolutely, I would. Absolutely.

CAVUTO: Above and beyond what they want? Just like Jimmy Carter did in the 1970s, the same thing, right?

DURBIN: Well, I want to tell you something.

A windfall profits tax would say to these oil companies once and for all, you can't rip us off at the pump day in and day out, for no good market reason, without a penalty. And the money should go back directly to consumers, who are paying these outrageous prices for gasoline.

CAVUTO: Senator, do you know how much, out of curiosity, is built into a gallon of gasoline, the profits of the oil companies? Do you know what's the average?

DURBIN: Well, let me see. ExxonMobil, what did they make in three months? It was $10 billion, if I'm not mistaken, the largest corporate profits in the history of the United States.

CAVUTO: Maybe you could answer my question. It's about 9 cents. Do you know how much taxes are, Senator? About 50 cents.

DURBIN: Let me tell you....

(CROSSTALK)

CAVUTO: So, don't you think you should be more focused on the tax-gouging than necessarily the profit-gouging?

DURBIN: How do you explain their profits after taxes? You're ignoring that, Neil. You don't want to talk about it.

CAVUTO: Are you ignoring the taxes? Senator, I'm asking you simply, are you ignoring the taxes? Would you roll back those taxes?

DURBIN: No. I'm telling you the taxes pay for the roads that we use.

CAVUTO: Would you roll back those taxes?

DURBIN: No.

Let me tell you, you look at the traffic congestion in America and the need for mass transit, you want to cut the source of funding to deal with that congestion? You're wrong. We have got to have taxation of users of our roads, in order to keep them safe and to keep them modern and to build mass transit.

Neil, you can't walk away from that.

CAVUTO: So, $50 cents a gallon, the taxes are OK? The 9 cent profit, that's not OK?

DURBIN: Oh, stop the 9 cents.

Talk about ExxonMobil's record profits, my friend. Four hundred million dollars for their CEO, aren't you a little embarrassed by that?

CAVUTO: Are you worried, though, Senator, that you're mixing this argument here that, when people look at what is being paid for a gallon of gasoline, the problem...

DURBIN: You didn't answer me, Neil.

CAVUTO: The oil companies are no saints, but you know what, Senator? I think you're a bigger sinner, because it's the tax- gouging that is killing Americans, not necessarily the price of the crude.

DURBIN: Neil, you won't even answer my question.

Four hundred million dollars for the CEO of ExxonMobil after the most profitable quarter in the history of American business, and you won't even address that? Do you realize the sacrifice that people watching this program, to subsidize those profits?

CAVUTO: So, Senator, Senator, let me answer this. I'm no apologist for the oil companies. I think you know that.

But when they were losing money...

DURBIN: I'm not sure.

CAVUTO: Wait a minute. Wait a minute, Senator.

When they were losing money, and they were laying off workers, and they were shutting down plants, and you were doing nothing to encourage them to build refineries, now that they are making money, they are the evil guys, and you're not even acknowledging the problem with taxes, and you're saying they're the bad guys? So, Senator, I would just ask you, who is zooming who here?

DURBIN: Let me just tell you, Neil, if the only tool you own is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

And, from where you're sitting, every problem is about the government. The government messed it up again. Guess what? It's possible the private sector is gouging us. It's possible they are price-fixing. It's possible that they have these rapacious profits, at the expense of average businesses and farmers and families. And you got to accept it. It just may not be the government's fault, Neil.

CAVUTO: So, and it might also be a strong global economy in China and India and our own economy doing well. You would acknowledge that something called supply and demand is also behind this...

DURBIN: Oh, I sure would. You bet.

CAVUTO: ... and not just evil oil companies?

DURBIN: Absolutely.

CAVUTO: OK.

DURBIN: There is an element of supply and demand. But let's be very conscious of the need of this country to move toward more energy independence.

You know, when Maria Cantwell of Washington, my fellow senator, offered an amendment to move us toward energy independence on the last energy bill, it failed; the Republican side wouldn't support it, to set a goal for America to reduce its dependence on foreign oil by 40 percent? I wish we could call that amendment again today.

CAVUTO: I wish we could get something done today.

Senator Dick Durbin, I appreciate your coming, just the same.

DURBIN: Always a pleasure.

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