Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., sponsored the legislation halting further additions to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which passed 97-1. Supporters say the bill will drive down energy prices by preventing the Department of Energy from continuing to pull 70,000 barrels of oil a day off the market.
"Instead of hiding barrels of oil in the nearly full Strategic Petroleum Reserve, we want to put them on the market to increase supply and lower prices," Reid said.
Both Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., left the campaign trail to vote in favor of the measure. Presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona did not return to vote on the proposal but said he supported its passage.
A similar bill passed last night in the House, 385-25.
The SPR currently holds 700 million barrels of oil, and Energy Department officials plan to continue adding to the reserve until 1 billion barrels are accrued, as mandated by the Energy Policy Act of 2005.
Although he supported the 2005 Act, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., said it's common sense to stop filling the SPR during times of skyrocketing oil prices.
"In light of the record cost of oil and resulting hardship for average Americans, businesses, farmers and the general economy, I believe it would be imprudent for DOE to take these barrels off the market," Dingell said yesterday on the House floor. "In 2006, DOE suspended filling the SPR during the summer driving season, and it is appropriate that it do so now."
Despite its popularity in Congress, the administration does not think an SPR fill suspension is a wise idea, said Scott Stanzel, White House spokesperson.
"The harm comes from the perspective that we as a nation are less protected in the event of a severe disruption to our oil supply, whether it's a natural disaster or a terrorist attack on the energy supply chain," Stanzel told United Press International.
While President Bush will not veto the legislation, he does not believe it will cause any significant reduction in price, Stanzel said.
"The Strategic Petroleum Reserve is filled at a very modest rate of less than 70,000 barrels per day," he said. "When compared with the 85 million barrels of daily demand worldwide, that is less than one-tenth of 1 percent."
Only one senator voted against the measure yesterday, Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., and he cited security concerns as the reason behind his decision.
"The SPR was set up to ensure we have adequate oil supplies in times of a national crisis and should not be subject to fluctuations in the global price of oil," Allard's representative told UPI.
Allard agrees with the White House's assessment that suspending the SPR fill will not significantly impact prices, he said in a statement. If Congress truly wanted to lower the cost of gasoline, Allard said, it would not have blocked the passage of another piece of legislation that went up for vote yesterday that would have opened up land in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Outer Continental Shelf off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.
"Today was a missed opportunity to lower gas prices for American consumers," Allard said. "Voting only to stop filling the Strategic Petroleum Reserve without doing anything to increase domestic production and lessening our dependence on foreign oil is a disservice to the American people."
In a vote of 56-42, Congress rejected the proposal, sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Opening up more land to oil drilling, as proposed by McConnell, will not solve the price problem, said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. The United States controls only 3 percent of world oil reserves, and opening all of them up to production won't significantly increase supply, he said in a speech Monday on the Senate floor. Instead Congress should focus on decreasing speculation in the oil market and strengthening the U.S. dollar, he said.
"But the Republican leader's amendment … fails to acknowledge or deal with this significant part of the problem," Bingaman said.
In addition, Bingaman said the proposal will not decrease prices because it takes several years, often close to a decade, before oil companies can begin producing on land that has been leased for drilling.
"The fact is, having a lease sale in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge won't do one thing to bring down gasoline prices anytime soon," he said. "Opening offshore areas, such as off the East Coast and off the West Coast, where there is no infrastructure, is also a very ineffective response to the prices consumers are seeing today."
However, if President Bill Clinton hadn't vetoed similar measures in 1995, the United States would currently produce an extra 1 million barrels per day, said Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who co-sponsored the legislation. Congress shouldn't let any more time pass before increasing supply, he said.
"With gas prices soaring higher and higher, we must produce more at home," he said.