May 18 (Reuters) - Gasoline prices fell for the first time in two months in the past week but that is not stopping the White House and lawmakers from both political parties from pushing for new initiatives to show they are doing their best to provide relief at the pump.
Skewered by analysts as little more than political theater, President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats are keen to shift the blame for surging prices to Big Oil ahead of the 2012 election.
Republicans, meanwhile, believe the answer is to open up American frontiers to more drilling to increase the country's reserves and cut dependence of foreign oil.
Here are some of the measures Congress and the White House have been pushing with great fanfare:
PROBE OF OIL REFINERS
A group of Democratic senators called this week for the Federal Trade Commission to determine if U.S. refiners are cutting production to keep pump prices high. [ID:nN17148177]
The senators cite a study showing plants running at only 82 percent capacity as evidence in the latest attempt to shift the blame for high prices to energy companies.
GAS PRICE TASK FORCE
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is leading a special task force set up to investigate possible manipulation of energy markets. [ID:nN06250009]
"If wholesale prices continue to decrease, fraud or manipulation must not be allowed to prevent price decreases from being passed on to consumers at the pump," Holder said in a recent memorandum to the group.
Democrats also have called for the commodity futures regulator to speed up rules to limit speculation in oil markets. [ID:nN11248413]
The Senate is expected to take a test vote on Wednesday to force the government to conduct exploration lease sales off the Virginia coast and in the Gulf of Mexico that were canceled or delayed following the BP (BP.L) oil spill.
The legislation easily passed the House of Representatives last week but faces strong opposition from the White House and in the Democratic-controlled Senate. [ID:nN0582990]
Republicans argue Obama administration policies in the Gulf have reduced domestic oil production and made the United States more reliant on foreign oil.[ID:nN1388727] They also pushed through the House a bill to include oil and gas production goals in the Interior Department's five-year leasing plan.
President Obama announced this weekend that his administration would streamline lease permits for drilling in Alaska and lease new areas in the Gulf of Mexico to boost offshore drilling. [ID:nN13152027]
The administration banned new exploration offshore for six months after the BP oil spill. Obama said the Interior Department would extend the life of affected leases to make up for lost time.
For information on the bills from the Natural Resources Committee, read here: r.reuters.com/fad69r
TAX BREAKS FOR OIL COMPANIES
Senate Democrats fell short on Tuesday of the 60 votes needed to repeal billions of dollars in tax breaks for oil companies, but Majority Leader Harry Reid said the upcoming debt limit deal would trim those incentives. [ID:nN17178845]
Reid has said repealing the tax breaks would trim the deficit by about $21 billion over 10 years. [ID:nN1298618]
Democrats on the Finance Committee slammed oil executives during a hearing last week, calling them out of touch. Lawmakers say oil companies don't need the incentives and the funds could go to investing in alternative forms of energy and lowering the deficit.
Republicans counter that tax hikes would be passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices at the pump.
SUE OPEC FOR PRICE FIXING
Democrat John Conyers introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that would allow the U.S. government to sue OPEC for high prices. [ID:nN13211904]
The bill would allow the United States to consider OPEC's state-owned oil companies in the same way it treats publicly owned companies, which are subject to antitrust laws and prohibited from manipulating markets.
The bill is similar to a measure passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The White House opposes the idea.
For more on the bill from the House Judiciary Committee, click here: r.reuters.com/wyc69r
The Blue Dog coalition, a group of 25 Democrats who push for conservative budget policies, endorsed a bill that would provide incentives for converting heavy-duty trucks and other vehicles to run on natural gas.
The measure, which incorporates ideas from Texas energy billionaire T. Boone Pickens, has wide bipartisan support. But chemical makers and other industries that use large amounts of gas are afraid that increased demand would boost prices.
For more on the bill from the coalition, click here: r.reuters.com/had69r (Reporting by Emily Stephenson and Timothy Gardner; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)