* Senate rejects bill to end tax breaks for biggest firms
* Obama taps into consumer anger at big oil firms
* Republicans opposed bill, said more drilling needed
By Patricia Zengerle and Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON, March 29 Republicans in the U.S.
Senate blocked legislation on Thursday to strip billions of
dollars in tax breaks for the biggest U.S. oil companies,
calling the bill a political stunt that would not help tamp down
surging gasoline prices.
President Barack Obama, under pressure as the pinch of
higher gasoline prices becomes a hot issue in the U.S.
presidential campaign, had urged Congress to end the breaks,
worth about $24 billion over 10 years, noting oil companies were
raking in record profits.
"They can stand with big oil companies, or they can stand
with the American people," Obama said at an event in the White
House Rose Garden just ahead of the Senate vote.
"It's not like these are companies that can't stand on their
own," Obama said.
The Senate bill needed 60 votes to clear a procedural
hurdle, but as widely predicted, it failed on a vote of 51-47,
mainly along party lines.
As Obama campaigns for re-election, Republicans are
attacking the White House over the rising cost of gasoline, a
particularly sensitive issue for car-loving Americans. Prices
have jumped about $0.30 in the past month to an average of
$3.92 per gallon, a record high for March.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll on Tuesday showed that more than
two-thirds of Americans disapprove of how Obama is handling high
gasoline prices, although they do not blame him. The reason most
commonly cited for the high prices, according to the poll, was
"oil companies that make too much profit."
Democrats had sought to use the vote to deflect criticism of
their energy policies and tap into populist anger against oil
"American families are struggling, big oil companies are
not," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said ahead of the vote.
Previous spikes in fuel prices have not affected U.S.
presidential election results. But economists warn that higher
gasoline prices could slow the overall economy, which would hurt
Obama's chances of winning a second term on Nov. 6.
REPUBLICANS SEEK DRILLING EXPANSION
The bill, sponsored by Robert Menendez, a Democrat, would
have cut billions of dollars in tax breaks for the "big five"
oil companies: Exxon Mobil Corp, BP Plc,
ConocoPhillips, Chevron Corp and Royal Dutch
"They took your money and they didn't produce a drop more of
oil," Menendez said on the Senate floor, noting the companies
produced less oil in 2011 than they did in 2010.
Republicans have said cutting the tax breaks would do
nothing to lower gasoline prices, and would only raise oil
companies' costs at a time when more domestic oil and gas
production is needed.
"Is this really the best we can do?" said Senate Republican
leader Mitch McConnell.
Republicans have urged the Obama administration to allow
more production offshore and on government-owned land, and to
quickly approve the Keystone XL pipeline to bring in more oil
But Obama said the United States should "double down" on
clean energy instead of rewarding oil companies.
"Last year, the three biggest U.S. oil companies took home
more than $80 billion in profit. Exxon pocketed nearly $4.7
million every hour," he said, citing an analysis showing that
the big companies pocket another $200 million in quarterly
profits every time the price of gasoline goes up by 1 cent.
"Keep in mind, we can't just drill our way out of this
problem," Obama said before a crowd of about 100 people,
including representatives of environmental groups and Americans
affected by the rising cost of gasoline.