* Bill would end tax breaks for biggest oil firms
* Republicans oppose bill, but want debate on issue
* White House said it supports the measure
By Ayesha Rascoe and Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON, March 26 Legislation repealing tax
breaks for major oil companies passed its first hurdle i n the
Senate on Mo nday, but is unlikely to become law, as Republicans
and Democrats seek to score political points over rising
The Senate voted 92 to 4 to proceed with consideration on
the bill that would eliminate billions of dollars in tax breaks
for the "big five" oil companies: Exxon Mobil Corp, BP
Plc, ConocoPhillips, Chevron Corp and
Royal Dutch Shell Plc.
The Senate vote came amid increasing nervousness among U.S.
politicians - from President Barack Obama to members of Congress
running for re-election on Nov. 6 - over possible voter backlash
from rising energy costs.
U.S. gasoline prices jumped more than a nickel to average
$3.92 a gallon in the past week, a record high for March. Voter
anger over surging fuel costs has sent lawmakers scrambling to
respond to consumers' energy woes.
But the legislation now up for debate in the Senate would
not bring down those rising prices - one of the few points
Democrats and Republicans appeared to agree upon.
The debate over U.S. energy policy has fallen mostly along
partisan lines, with Democrats stressing the need to end tax
breaks for oil companies and invest in alternative energy
sources, while Republicans press for more domestic oil and gas
The lopsided vote in favor of moving ahead with
consideration of the oil tax cuts bill reflected political
maneuvering in the chamber, not actual support for the measure.
Both Democrats and Republicans think they will score points
with voters by staging a Senate debate on tax breaks for the
major oil companies - knowing that legislation ending these
breaks will not clear the Republican-controlled House of
Republicans overwhelmingly supported going forward with
weighing the legislation, but only to air their grievances with
the measure and to make their own separate case for addressing
high gasoline prices.
Sponsored by Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, the
legislation would save an estimated $24 billion over 10 years,
with the savings going toward extending renewable energy tax
credits and reducing the deficit.
With only about seven months before the Nov. 6 presidential
and congressional elections, Democrats are hoping to spend time
highlighting Big Oil's "taxpayer-funded subsidies," as a
Democratic aide portrayed them. These subsidies, the aide added,
come amid rising gasoline prices that further contribute to
strong oil company profits.
"It's time to end this wasteful corporate welfare," Senate
Majority Leader Harry Reid said in speech on Senate floor.
The White House issued a statement in support of the
Menendez bill o n M onday. The Obama administration has repeatedly
called for an end to tax breaks for oil companies, without
"This is the Democrat response to high gas prices," Senate
Republican leader Mitch McConnell countered. "Frankly, I can't
think of a better way to illustrate how completely out of touch
they are on this issue."
Republicans, like the oil companies, think that with retail
gasoline prices rapidly rising, now is not the time to saddle
industry with higher taxes. "There's no evidence to show that
raising a tax is going to lower gas prices," a senior Republican
The tax breaks also exist against a background of
chronically high government budget deficits. Many Democrats,
including President Barack Obama, argue that the wealthy should
do more to help reduce those deficits by taking on a bigger tax