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Congress defies Bush on oil reserve

  • Story Highlights
  • House votes to stop filling the strategic petroleum reserve to alleviate gas prices
  • Estimates on impact on gas prices range from one cent to 25 cents per gallon
  • Bush opposes move, says it would threaten national security
  • Alaska drilling could drastically cut oil prices, Republicans write Pelosi
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The House of Representatives voted to direct the Bush administration to stop filling the strategic petroleum reserve temporarily in an effort to alleviate increasing gas prices.

Stopping deposits to the petroleum reserve is estimated to save drivers between a penny and 25 cents a gallon.

Both the House and Senate, which voted earlier Tuesday, exceeded the two-thirds vote required to override the president's expected veto: The House vote was 385-25, the Senate vote was 97-1.

President Bush opposes the reserve measure because, he said, limiting supplies to the reserve could have national security consequences in the event of a natural disaster or terrorist attack.

He has also argued that the daily amount of oil put into the reserve pales in comparison to worldwide consumption and therefore would have a negligible impact on the price at the pump.

"Purchases for SPR [the reserve] account for one-tenth of 1 percent of global demand," Bush said in April. "And I don't think that's going to affect price when you affect one-tenth of 1 percent, and I do believe it is in our national interests to get the SPR filled in case there's a major disruption of crude oil around the world." Video Watch how high gas prices are affecting the economy »

Since the two measures came to vote in different formats -- the Senate voted on an amendment while the House had a stand-alone bill -- lawmakers will have to merge the two and approve them again. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said he hoped that would happen as early as next week.

Many Senate Republicans -- driven by fears that high gas prices are damaging the economy and their re-election chances -- defied Bush by backing the Democratic amendment.

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Many Republicans have "an honest disagreement" with the president, said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, a member of the GOP leadership.

"We are talking to people out there. We are out there. People are really worried. They are worried about the high cost of food [and] transportation," she said.

Sen. Wayne Allard, a Colorado Republican, cast the lone vote against the amendment, saying supporting the measure's end without doing anything to increase domestic production and ease the nation's dependence on foreign oil is "a disservice to the American people."

Allard was a supporter of a recent Senate bill that called for more drilling on federal lands; the bill failed in a 42-56 vote.

Estimates for how much it would save if the reserve were cut range from a few pennies to 25 cents per gallon. The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicted oil prices would fall by about $2 a barrel -- which would shave 4 to 5 cents a gallon off the price of gas -- if deliveries to the reserve are suspended.

But Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, who wrote the amendment, said suspending the shipments could cut the cost of a barrel of the sought-after light sweet crude up to 10 percent.

The amendment would stop new deliveries to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve for six months as long as the price of oil remains above $75 a barrel.

"When the American consumer is being burned at the stake by energy prices, the government ought not be carrying the wood. Sticking oil underground is wrong in this point in time and this amendment says stop it, halt it," Dorgan said.

The major presidential candidates support the amendment. Democratic Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama voted for the measure. Sen. John McCain, the presumed Republican nominee, was not present for the vote.

Bush was expected to veto the final bill.

"[Saying] 'No' to the American economy is a dangerous economic position for our country," said Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, a lead Democratic sponsor of the House bill.

Republican leaders in the House said the bill was a good "first step" to addressing gas prices, but used the vote as an opportunity to push for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- a 19-million acre strip in northeastern Alaska, where oil exploration has long been prohibited by Congress.

Drilling in the refuge could produce a million barrels of oil a day and "reduce gasoline prices by 14 times the price reduction achieved by redirecting oil from the SPR," said House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio and Republican Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri in a letter Monday to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California.

The Republicans also proposed tapping reserves in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, where an estimated 1.5 trillion barrels of oil shale exist.

However, Pelosi argued that more drilling is not the answer, saying drilling on federal lands has increased over the years without affecting gas prices. She also said opening the arctic refuge for drilling would only provide six months of oil -- 10 years from now.


Democrats have proposed holding OPEC-controlled oil companies accountable for increases at the pump, investing in renewable energy and boosting biofuel production.

The Senate vote came on an unrelated flood insurance bill. Democrats had planned to offer a broader amendment to go after alleged price gouging and market speculators, but narrowed the measure after picking up Republican support for halting deliveries to the strategic petroleum reserve.

CNN's Ted Barrett and Diedre Walsh and's Steve Hargreaves contributed to this report.

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