Senate Democrats had hoped to clobber Republicans with a politically charged bill ending tax breaks for Big Oil, but ended up playing defense instead when Republicans turned the issue of high gas prices against them Tuesday.
The bill offered by Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., would eliminate tax breaks enjoyed by the nation's five largest oil companies over the next decade. Democrats want instead to provide tax breaks for green energy initiatives, like electric cars, wind and solar power.
"No one can stand here and tell me that Big Oil is making sacrifices just like ordinary Americans," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. "If you want to do something, let's take away these subsidies from Big Oil companies that are just making life miserable for millions of people. Let's stand up for the American people."
Democrats knew they couldn't pass the bill. It would require 60 votes, and they control just 53 seats. But by forcing a test vote this week, Democrats hoped that they could use Republican opposition to the measure as election-year evidence that Republicans were the party of Big Oil.
But Republicans surprised Democrats when instead of voting against the bill, they agreed to advance it for debate Tuesday. Republicans then turned that debate against Democrats, using gas prices already soaring beyond $4 a gallon as proof that ending the oil subsidies not only wouldn't bring down prices at the pump but increase them.
"I can't think of a better way to illustrate how out of touch and irresponsible the Democrat majority has become," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday.
Republicans argued that the Menendez bill would essentially result in a tax hike for the oil companies, which would make up for the increase by charging more for fuel. Gas is up a nickle a gallon just since last week, to an average of $4.35, according to AAA.
"If this bill passes, not only will you see your gas prices continue to rise, you will see your gas prices go through the roof," Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., argued during the floor debate.
Republicans claimed that Democrats were only undermining the economy with the efforts to punish oil companies by blocking new drilling and refusing to allow the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada.
The Democratic bill, argued Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., "isn't like shooting ourselves in the foot, it's like shooting ourselves in the head. Why would we do this?"
Democrats hoped to make the case that Republicans are supporting Big Oil at a time when those companies are racking up record profits, leaving consumers to struggle financially to fill their tanks.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., brought the Menendez bill to the floor after a weekend memo from Democratic operatives John Podesta and Geoff Garin suggested a public debate about the oil company tax breaks could help Democrats "win the gas price messaging war" by exposing the GOP's ties to the oil industry.
By late Tuesday, however, Democrats were eager to end the debate and move the Senate away from oil legislation and on to a post office reform bill.
"Maybe," McConnell said, "it didn't make the intended political point as forcefully as they wanted."