Despite Bush's opposition, Congress votes to halt stockpiling oil

The move, which passed the Senate and House Tuesday with a bipartisan majority, may reflect changing GOP ideas on energy.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In defiance of the White House, Congress – including nearly all Republicans – voted overwhelmingly this week to halt purchases of oil for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

President Bush has resisted calls to halt purchase of some 70,000 barrels of oil a day for the SPR or to sell off "strategic petroleum" to help ease $4-a-gallon gas prices. Democrats claim the move could drop prices by 25 cents a gallon.

White House spokesmen dispute that claim, but say the president will not veto the bill, which passed the Senate on Tuesday by a vote of 97 to 1; in the House, 285 to 25. "The president doesn't support the legislation because he doesn't believe it will have a meaningful impact on prices, but he will not veto the underlying legislation that passed in the Senate or the House," says White House deputy press secretary Scott Stanzel.

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"The president hopes this bill won't distract Congress from doing what they should do in the future such as opening up new domestic supply in an environmentally sensitive way," he added.

But Republicans on Capitol Hill are already moving into a post-Bush mind-set on energy. In part, it's a response to sticker shock at the pump from constituents. GOP lawmakers say they are also responding to new themes raised by their likely standard-bearer in the 2008 presidential race.

In recent weeks, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona called on the White House to halt new purchases for the SPR, currently at 97 percent capacity. He is also stepping up calls for a new national energy policy, including on global warming.

Democrats and Republicans have been deeply divided over a comprehensive national energy strategy: Republicans want to increase domestic oil and gas production, including drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Democrats want to roll back tax breaks for oil companies and expand renewable energy sources.

But that template is shifting. Last week, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee, who chairs the Senate Republican Conference, proposed launching a five-year New Manhattan Project "to put America firmly on the path to clean energy independence within a generation."

In a speech in Portland, Ore., McCain launched a plan to cap greenhouse-gas emissions and set up a system to allow businesses that produce fewer emissions to trade credits with those that don't.

"I think it's fair to say that [McCain's] focus on the issue will continue to keep all of us engaged, Republicans and Democrats," says Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska. "We're going to have a lot more conversation on climate change with any of the three prospective presidential contenders."

Early next month, the Senate is on track to take up bipartisan global warming legislation proposed by Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I) of Connecticut and John Warner (R) of Virginia. Supporters need 60 votes to break an expected filibuster.

But Senator Warner says he expects more support from GOP colleagues than in previous votes on the issue. This week, Republicans are helping draft a provision in the bill to boost nuclear power and to give the president authority to take steps in the case of "unforeseen circumstances," such as a deterioration in the economy or the energy situation," he says.

At press time, McCain had not yet endorsed the Lieberman-Warner plan. He is urging the Senate to include provisions to boost the nuclear industry.

"For all of the last century, the profit motive basically led in one direction – toward machines, methods, and industries that used oil and gas. Enormous good came from that industrial growth ... but there were costs we weren't counting, and often hardly noticed," he said on Monday.

"And these terrible costs have added up now, in the atmosphere, in the oceans, and all across the natural world. They are no longer tenable, sustainable, or defensible. And what better way to correct past errors than to turn the creative energies of the free market in the other direction?"

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