Democrats look for cover on rising gas prices

Democrats are looking for ways to lower gas prices, which have skyrocketed in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and could rise further as the U.S. and other countries move to ban Russian imports.

Democrats believe they have some political cover because of the bipartisan backlash to Russia. President Biden made the point of blaming Russian President Vladimir Putin for the increase, calling it “Putin’s price hike.”

But they are also taking a kitchen sink approach as they mull possible steps that Congress, the administration or even oil companies could take, in an acknowledgment that there are few easy answers for the party that could create immediate relief for consumers. 

Asked about his message for Americans on gas prices, Biden said “they’re going to go up.”

“Can’t do much right now. Russia is responsible,” Biden said, asked what he could do about it. 

The higher prices, and the threat that they could go higher, comes as Democrats are already facing economic headaches sparked by highs inflation and persistent supply chain issues. 

The topic of gas prices is expected to come up Wednesday during a Senate Democratic retreat, where they are focusing on trying to lower costs including gas prices.

“I think we’re going to be having a long talk ….about gas prices,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). 

Democrats are acutely aware that the same Republicans who have been clamoring for the Biden administration to ban Russian oil will turn around and attack them if fuel prices rise.

“Well of course they’ll use any tool in the toolbox and one of them is to hold us accountable for any increase in cost of living,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat.

Senate Republicans signaled that they view gas prices as a crucial line of attack heading into the midterms, where they want to win back control of Congress.

“I expect our Democratic friends will now try to blame the entire increase in prices on our efforts to punish Russia. But don't be fooled,” said Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “This was more than a year in the making.”

Part of the reason the White House was initially skeptical of banning Russian oil was over the concern that it could negatively impact consumers. The average gas price in the United States as of Tuesday was roughly $4.17. 

Gas prices were already on the rise before Russia’s invasion, but Democrats are galvanizing on bipartisan backlash to Putin’s invasion to try to put the blame for the price hike squarely on the Russian president.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Democratic caucus, said “the notion that [Republicans] want to now come here and lecture us when Vladimir Putin is the one responsible if gas prices increase significantly here in America — Vladimir Putin — and they shouldn’t provide any aid and comfort to him.”

But what the administration and congressional Democrats can do to ease prices in the short-term is less clear and have sparked divisions within the party. 

A group of Democratic senators, including some of the party’s most vulnerable 2022 incumbents, are pushing for a suspension of the gas tax. 

Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), one of the Democrats backing the legislation, said that cutting off Russian oil imports was the right move but underscored “the urgency of giving Georgians and Americans a break at the pump, including passing my legislation to suspend the federal gas tax and provide some relief to drivers’ pockets during this tumultuous time.”

“I’m going to keep pushing to get this done, to lower rising costs for hardworking Georgia families,” he added. 

But the idea gets a cool reception from fellow Democrats who worry it will ding highway funding just a year after Congress passes infrastructure legislation. 

“There are things I like better than that. You know, the gas tax is so good on the infrastructure. I don’t want to deprive us of infrastructure funding.” Kaine said. 

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), asked about a suspension of the gas tax, said, “I’m always reluctant about temporary pauses.”

To try to offset Russian oil that will be lost from an import ban, Biden administration officials recently traveled to Venezuela to discuss energy sanctions and imprisoned Americans. 

That earned them a public tongue lashing from Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.). 

He said “the Biden administration’s efforts to unify the entire world against a murderous tyrant in Moscow should not be undercut by propping up a dictator under investigation for crimes against humanity in Caracas.”

Biden has authorized tens of millions of gallons to be released from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. 

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) urged for more U.S. production, saying, “we’ve got to get production up.”

Democrats are also indicating that they plan to publicly pressure oil companies to increase production and not price gouge. 

“So, it's really up to the oil companies to determine whether they are going to — as well as Wall Street — whether they're going to reinvest these war profits from high prices back into the economy, raise production, and lower prices to American consumers. And that pressure should be on them,” White House press secretary Jenn Psaki told reporters. 

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said that oil companies needed to ramp up oil production and do fewer stock buybacks 

“They have to buy this product, and I would hope that the oil companies would join with us in trying to minimize the pain at the pump for the American people. And we're looking at ways and means to do that, as well. Because we're concerned about it,” Hoyer said. 

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