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Democrats put pressure on Biden to ban Russian oil imports

There's now momentum in both parties to impose an embargo, but the White House warns a blockade could "raise prices at the gas pump for Americans.”
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., speaks on Capitol Hill on Dec. 13, 2021.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., speaks on Capitol Hill on Dec. 13, 2021.Sarah Silbiger / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden faces growing calls from fellow Democrats to ban imports of Russian oil as lawmakers desperately try to find a way to stop President Vladimir Putin’s bloody war in Ukraine.

“It is so obviously apparent that we need to cut it off. I wonder if there’s a reason we haven’t [and] what the hell the reason is,” moderate Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., told NBC News on Wednesday.

Another centrist, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., told reporters: “We should stop buying over 600,000 barrels [of Russian oil] a day in America. Can you believe that? No one knew that. No one paid attention to it. And that has to stop.”

Manchin, the chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is teaming up with Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and other Republicans on legislation that would block the U.S. government and U.S. companies from importing any Russian crude oil or petroleum, according to a one-page draft obtained by NBC News.

Manchin and Murkowski are still finalizing the language and locking down co-sponsors, aides said. Several senators signaled that they are interested in backing the measure.

“We have to consider additional sanctions" on Russia’s oil and gas industry, said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., adding that the Manchin-Murkowski bill is something he is taking under consideration.

Meanwhile, progressive Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., a leading champion of the Green New Deal, rolled out his own legislation — the Severing Putin’s Immense Gains from Oil Transfers (SPIGOT) Act — which would block imports of Russian oil and petroleum products and develop a strategy to prioritize clean energy alternatives.

“It is so obviously apparent that we need to cut it off. I wonder if there’s a reason we haven’t [and] what the hell the reason is.”

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.

Pressed about a potential Russia oil embargo, President Joe Biden replied Wednesday: “Nothing is off the table.”

But White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre later raised concerns about the possible repercussions.

“We don’t have a strategic interest in reducing the global supply of energy,” she told reporters traveling on Air Force One. “That would raise prices at the gas pump for Americans."

Rising inflation and high gas prices have been key concerns for Biden and the Democrats as they try to defend their fragile majorities in the House and the Senate in the November midterm elections. In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, Biden announced that the U.S. was working with 30 other countries to release 60 million barrels of oil in global reserves — half of which would come from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

“These steps will help blunt gas prices here at home,” Biden said.

Some congressional Democrats also are raising red flags about the economic consequences of turning off Moscow’s oil spigot. The U.S. and its European allies buy about $700 million worth of oil every day from Russia. The U.S. alone imports about 670,000 barrels of crude oil and petroleum products each day from Russia, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“The president last night was trying to insulate the American citizen, the American consumer, from suffering too much,” said Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., the chairman of the Joint Economic Committee. “And I think the fear from the White House … is that if you cut off Russian oil, you could make people suffer too much and you could weaken our resolve to be a strong supporter of Ukraine."

Biden also needs to “be aware of the European consumer,” said Beyer, who was the U.S. ambassador to Switzerland during the Obama administration. “We don’t want to undermine the ability of our European allies to maintain a strong united front.”

While Democrats remain splintered, Republicans are unified behind such a blockade, raising the issue this week in news conferences, cable TV appearances and interviews in the Capitol.

It has become the perfect campaign issue for Republicans, who argue not only that an embargo is the moral thing to do but also that it highlights the need for Biden to boost domestic energy production by reversing course on drilling permits and the Keystone XL pipeline.

“We should commit to ending any import of Russian oil, but we need to open up American energy. And President Biden took that off the shelf,” Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 Republican in the House, said Wednesday. “Raiding the Strategic Petroleum Reserve doesn’t move the needle, because it’s a finite resource, and ultimately it’s going to run out.

“What we need to do is open up more production in America so that we can undermine Putin’s ability to provide the world with oil,” said Scalise, whose state is a big energy producer.

Speaking to House conservatives, Robert O’Brien, who was former President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, argued that U.S. energy independence is a matter of national security.

“We’ve got to restart the Keystone pipeline. Call it the Biden Build Back Better pipeline — I don’t care. But we need the pipeline,” O’Brien said after his meeting with the Republican Study Committee.

“We’ve got to cut off the oil. It’s going to supply Vladimir Putin’s war machine,” he said.

In the House, Democrats across the political spectrum are echoing Biden’s line that everything should be on the table as Putin continues to launch missiles into civilian areas, driving hundreds of thousands of refugees into neighboring countries.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a leading progressive who has pushed for clean energy and fought to end fossil fuel subsidies, said he is “open to” a ban on Russian oil. Centrist Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pa., a Senate candidate, said he is “looking into it.” And Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., a leader of the moderate Blue Dog Democrats, said Congress should “look at the range of options” and that a ban is “one of the options.”

Rep. Jake Auchincloss, D-Mass., an Afghanistan war veteran, was more direct.

“Putin has taken a lot of body blows, but now it’s time to punch him in the face,” he said.

If Russia does not stand down and recognize Ukraine as a sovereign country, “we should embargo [Russian] oil immediately,” he said. “We should ban oil and gas in consultation with our OPEC and European allies.

“Those sanctions are going to demonstrate that the free world is behind the Ukrainian people, and they are going to rock the foundation of the Kremlin.”