Bill to open oil stockpile stalls

House Republicans on Thursday scuttled a bill that Democrats hoped would help lower gasoline prices by forcing the Energy Department to release 70 million barrels of oil – about a three-day supply – from the national stockpile.

Democrats promised that the action would have produced immediate relief at the pump, as was the case with similar releases in 1991, 2000 and 2005.

Despite winning a clear 268-157 majority, the measure still lost. Democratic leaders had brought the proposal up for debate under rules requiring a two-thirds vote to pass.

But passing the bill by just a majority would have meant allowing Republicans to force a vote on new offshore drilling leases.

“They're hiding from a vote,” said GOP leader John Boehner of Ohio. “They're scared to death to allow us to force their members to vote on drilling.”

Democrats said the release from the oil reserve could provide relief at the pump within two weeks, though they would not say how much it would help $4-per-gallon gas. Earlier releases, such as a 34 million barrel drawdown in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War, caused prices to fall.

As debate began, the White House threatened a veto.

“Rather than drawing down a strategic reserve intended to protect our nation's energy security from a severe supply disruption, Congress should pass legislation to increase domestic oil supply,” the White House said in a statement.

Currently the strategic reserve holds 706 million barrels, or 35 days' worth of average U.S. oil consumption. The inventory includes 424 million barrels of light sour crude and 282 million barrels of light sweet crude, the Energy Department said.

Across the Capitol, political squabbling promised to doom a Senate bill that would curb the kind of speculation in the oil markets that many people believe is partly responsible for the increases in oil prices.

Republicans appeared unlikely to agree to cut off debate and move the measure to a final vote. They complained that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., had blocked them from offering amendments.

The result of all of the political maneuvering is that Congress will adjourn for a five-week vacation without having passed into law any response to high gas prices since legislation in May that required President Bush to suspend filling the reserve.

Republicans believe they are gaining the political upper hand because of Democrats' refusal to allow new drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf. Democrats said they have not seen any erosion in their standing with voters and say it allows them to cast Republicans as doing the bidding of big oil companies.

“This is an issue that the Republicans have latched onto in the absence of any other issue they have to talk about,” said the House's second-ranking Democrat, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland. “Not the economy, not Iraq, not foreign policy … it's the only issue they have.”

On Thursday, the national average price of a gallon of unleaded gas was $4.026, according to AAA. That's down from $4.069 a month ago.