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High Gas Prices Fuel Senate's Oil Debates


In the Senate, Democrats say it's time to end tax breaks for oil companies. But Republicans blocked a bill last night that would abolish those subsidies. Today, Democrats plan to block a Republican bill that would expand domestic oil drilling.

Here's NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA: Senate Democrats are convinced public opinion is on their side in the push to end $2 billion a year in tax breaks for the top five oil companies. New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez, who's up for re-election next year, sponsored the bill terminating those subsidies.

Senator ROBERT MENENDEZ (Democrat, New Jersey): With the big five oil companies poised to make 144 billion in profits this year alone, it means that big oil would simply have to settle for $142 billion in profits this year to pay their fair share of dealing with the deficit and they wouldn't have to raise gas prices one cent.

WELNA: The $21 billion that would be saved over the next decade by eliminating the subsidies would all go to reducing the projected budget deficit, if only by about two-tenths of 1 percent. Democrats also made a moral argument. West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller, who is the great-grandson of the founder of Standard Oil, blasted the heads of those five big oil companies, who testified last week before a congressional committee.

Senator JAY ROCKEFELLER (Democrat, West Virginia): These men are all completely out of touch - deeply, profoundly out of touch with what the rest of the country is going through.

WELNA: But Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, whose state is the nation's top oil producer, urged colleagues to oppose the measure.

Senator LISA MURKOWSKI (Republican, Alaska): Essentially, a yes vote tonight to raise taxes on oil and gas companies is simply a vote to try and take a pound of flesh from these five major companies that, yes, in fact, are making money -yes, in fact, are making a profit.

WELNA: Alaska Democrat Mark Begich broke party ranks to vote against the measure as well. So did Democrats Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. She defended the oil companies' windfall earnings this year.

Senator MARY LANDRIEU (Democrat, Louisiana): They are making profits, and you know what? That's what America's about, is about making profits. And we don't penalize people for making profits. We congratulate them.

WELNA: The only Republicans voting to end the subsidies were the two senators from Maine. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins bucked their leader, Mitch McConnell, who accused Democrats of trying to foment class warfare.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): With Americans looking for real relief, symbolic votes like this that aim to do nothing but pit people against each other will only frustrate the public even more. Americans really aren't interested in scapegoats - they just want to pay less to fill up their cars.

WELNA: Republicans also portrayed the effort to end subsidies for oil companies as a tax hike by Democrats. Here's McConnell's fellow Kentuckian, Rand Paul.

Senator RAND PAUL (Republican, Kentucky): We're going to raise the cost of the oil companies by raising their taxes, which means you'll pay more at the pump. It is economic illiteracy and it is what's wrong up here in Washington.

WELNA: In fact, according to the Congressional Research Service, gas prices would not be affected if subsidies for big oil ended.

South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham voted to keep those subsidies, but he did so only because he felt Democrats were seeking to score points with their proposal.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): This is a political exercise more than anything else. But I do believe the oil subsidies could be reduced or taken away or at least put a floor on them if you got something for it in terms of production.

WELNA: Such as making it easier to drill for oil domestically. That's what Republicans seek to do in a bill being voted on today. But it too is bound to fail. Senators from both parties say the two competing measures could end up as part of a grand political bargain being hammered out that's aimed at securing the votes to raise the debt ceiling.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.