WASHINGTON – Congress voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to challenge President Bush to temporarily halt the daily shipment of thousands of barrels of oil into the government's emergency reserve.
Lawmakers disagreed on what — if any — impact the suspension might have on gasoline prices and acknowledged it was but "a modest step" in addressing public anger over soaring energy costs.
Bush has steadfastly refused to halt shipments of about 70,000 barrel barrels of oil a day into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a system of salt caverns on the Gulf coast. The reserve, created to respond to major oil supply disruptions, holds 701 million barrels and is at 97 percent of capacity.
"There is no evidence that (suspending shipments) will affect the price of oil or gasoline in a meaningful way," said White House spokesman Scott Stanzel. He said the president opposes any congressional mandate to stop deliveries and believes Congress should focus on broader energy issues.
The Senate voted 97-1 to suspend the shipments for the rest of the year. Hours later, the House followed suit, voting 385-25 to halt the deliveries. The votes don't compel Bush to act because the measures differ somewhat and would need to be reconciled before final congressional approval.
Still the votes were symbolic, in their strong bipartisan support, of lawmakers' frustrations at not being able to agree on anything more substantive in response to public anger over near $4 a gallon gasoline and oil prices in the $125 a barrel range.
"We are buying the most expensive crude oil in the history of the world and storing it," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. "When American consumers are burning at the stake by high energy prices, the government ought not be carrying the wood."
Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., acknowledged there was no guarantee that suspending the deliveries would lower gasoline prices, but declared: "Common sense would say not to take oil off the market during a time of record high prices."
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas., who opposed the measure, said it was "ludicrous" to suggest — as some Democrats did — that putting this modest amount of oil into the market could shave 25 cents off the price of a gallon of gas. Barton called it "feel-good" legislation.
The votes came as Bush departed for the Middle East where he will meet with Saudi officials later in the week and likely press for an increase in oil production. The Saudis have rebuffed such overtures in the past.
The Strategic Petroleum Reserve was created in the 1970s as a precaution against major interruptions of oil supplies. Today at 701 million barrels it has enough to replace two months of oil imports.
Senators said the stockpile is big enough to meet any emergency.
Only Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., voted against the measure.
Dorgan acknowledged that suspending the strategic reserve deliveries were "a small step forward" as Congress grapples with ways to respond to the high fuel prices. He said it could send a signal to energy markets and result in some gasoline price reduction and curb speculation that has driven up crude oil prices.
"It could have a chance of reducing the price a small amount," said Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who joined the chorus against continuing the shipments. "But make no bones about it, this is no big energy policy. This is one little thing we can do."
Earlier, the Senate rejected, 56-42, a broader Republican energy plan that called for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and some offshore waters that are now off limits to oil development.
Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said more domestic oil production is needed to keep prices in check and to reduce U.S. dependence on oil imports. But opponents said the Alaska wildlife refuge and coastal waters that have been off limits to drilling for 25 years ought to remain out of bounds to oil companies.
"We can't drill our way to lower prices," said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.