WASHINGTON – The Senate late Wednesday approved and sent to the White House legislation directing President Bush to temporarily halt oil shipments into the government's emergency reserve, hoping to lower energy prices.
Final approval came without debate after Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada received assurances from other senators, including Republicans, that no one would object.
Bush has refused to halt the shipment of about 70,000 barrels of oil a day into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, saying it was such a small amount that it has no impact on gasoline or crude oil prices.
Lawmakers acknowledged in debate on the issue this week that suspending the deliveries into the stockpile was a "small step" to take in response to oil prices of nearly $125 a barrel and gasoline threatening to go to $4 a gallon this summer.
Nevertheless, the Senate on Tuesday voted 97-1 to suspend the deliveries and the House followed hours later approving a similar measure by a vote of 385-25. It's one of the few energy issues on which Democrats and Republicans have been able to agree.
But the Senate and House versions were slightly different, so the Senate approved the House-passed bill by so-called unanimous consent as the chamber completed its business Wednesday evening.
While Bush opposes the legislation, the White House has indicated that he is expected to sign it.
The government stockpile currently contains 701 million barrels of oil, enough to cover two months of oil imports. The reserve, with a capacity of 727 million barrels, is 97 percent full. It was created in a series of underground salt domes on the Gulf Coast in the 1970s as a cushion against future oil disruptions.
Oil from the stockpile has been used twice in response to disruptions or fear of supply shortages — before and during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina disrupted supplies from the Gulf of Mexico.
Bush has steadfastly said he has no intention to use oil in the reserve to impact market prices. By law, the oil already in the stockpile is supposed to be used only in case of significant supply disruptions.