WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans are championing President Joe Biden’s decision to ban Russian oil imports to the U.S., a highly anticipated move that could continue to push gas prices to record highs.
But in the same breath, GOP leaders — eager to win back the House and the Senate this fall — are trying to capitalize by blaming Biden and his energy policies for Americans’ having to pay more at the pump.
Republicans argue that Biden could have it both ways — sanction Russian oil but also keep U.S. prices down by allowing a rampant increase in domestic production, which they argue Biden isn't doing in furtherance of liberal environment goals.
But oil production isn't a spigot that can just be flipped on, and the domestic market has been suppressed not just by federal rules, but also by an international market that depressed the price and made drilling unprofitable. Democrats point to the thousands of wells that have been approved but aren't being drilled.
The attacks highlight the precarious political situation for Democrats in power as they try to punish Russian President Vladimir Putin for his war in Ukraine, contend with rising inflation and gas prices and protect their fragile majorities in Congress.
“What I’ve said is: ‘Stop buying oil from Russia but get it from America.’ [Biden] will say the first half, but he won’t say the second half. So what does he have against American energy?” said House Republican Whip Steve Scalise, who hails from the oil-producing state of Louisiana. “He’s trying to point to everyone else in the world when everything we need is right under our feet.”
Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, the House Republicans’ campaign chief in the 2022 election cycle, made it clear that skyrocketing gas prices and energy costs will be a key campaign issue as his party tries to flip a handful of seats and win back control of the lower chamber.
“Well, they own it. They’re the ones causing this. They’re the ones who shut it down in the first place, whether it’s drilling on federal lands, freezing all the permits a couple weeks ago, killing the Keystone XL pipeline,” Emmer said in an interview. “They’re responsible for this like they’re responsible for inflation.”
Biden said Tuesday it's "simply not true" that his policies are holding back domestic energy production, noting that the U.S. companies "pumped more oil" in his first year than in the first year of the Trump administration and that the U.S. is nearing "record levels of oil and gas" production.
He added that oil and gas companies have millions of acres leased and 9,000 approved permits that aren’t being used to drill for oil.
"The decision today is not without cost here at home. Putin's war is already hurting Americans at the gas pump," Biden said. "And with this action it's going to go up further. I'm going to do everything I can to minimize Putin's price hike here at home."
"It's no time for profiteering and price-gouging," he said.
In interviews, Democratic lawmakers said they’re bracing for bad faith finger-pointing about gas prices ahead of the election.
“I have no doubt that Republicans will cheerlead this ban and then spend the rest of the year castigating the Biden White House for an increase in gas prices,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn. “I just think we have to be eyes wide open as to how Republicans are not going to get the administration’s back on the consequences of Ukraine and Russia energy policy.”
'Any tool in the toolbox'
Rising gas prices pose pocketbook strains for ordinary Americans who pay little attention to partisan politics but tend to blame the party in the White House for economic challenges.
Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., who faces a tough re-election bid, said Tuesday that the U.S. must “stand up to Putin” as well as fight “to address affordability here at home.”
“That’s why as we end all importation of Russian oil, I am calling for a gas tax holiday to ease prices at the pump,” she said.
Republicans are likely to make their case to voters.
“I can’t tell you what Republicans will do,” said Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., who is up for re-election this fall. “I can tell you my focus is only on Nevada and what people are dealing with in Nevada right now.”
Democratic consultant Jesse Ferguson said that “everyone agrees on the medicine, but Republicans want to blame Biden for the side effects," and added that GOP lawmakers overwhelmingly oppose Democrats' plans to invest in domestic renewable energy in a social spending and climate package.
"These are the same Republicans who just voted against American-made clean energy — the type of clean energy that would make us no longer dependent on big oil companies and tyrants like Putin," Ferguson said.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said “of course” Republicans will blame Democrats for higher gas prices arising from the Russian import ban.
“They’ll use any tool in the toolbox,” he said.
Still, Durbin said, the policy was necessary.
“You couldn’t be on that phone call with President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy, as I was on Saturday morning, and realize that that man is risking his life in this cause and say to the American people we can’t consider any increase in gas prices at the pump as a cost of our participation in this,” he said. “We need to stand by them and accept the fact that it may create some hardship.”
Shortly after the announcement Tuesday, the Republican National Committee touted high gas prices and “pain at the pump” in an email accusing Biden of trying to “stifle” American energy.
Former President Donald Trump issued a brief statement Tuesday morning that read, in all caps: “BREAKING NEWS: HIGHEST GAS PRICES IN HISTORY! DO YOU MISS ME YET?”
House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., called on Republicans not to "provide any aid and comfort" to Putin by deflecting blame for higher gas prices.
"We know they have practice doing so, because Donald Trump did it for four years, which may explain some of the brazenness we’re seeing right now in Eastern Europe," he said.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the Democratic presidential runner-up in 2016 and 2020, said Congress should pair a Russian import ban with “a windfall profits tax on the oil companies,” alleging that the highly profitable companies are using the turmoil and confusion during the war “as an opportunity to rip the American consumer off.”
He said Congress should make larger investments in clean energy.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said the oil import ban “has to be done,” even if Republicans will “absolutely” try to blame Democrats for the rise in oil prices.
“If we’re going to have any impact, more than we’ve already had on Russia, I think this is how you do it,” he said.