With populist speech, president sought to blame high gas prices on his Republican critics.
WASHIGNTON - President Obama on Thursday called on Congress to end tax breaks for oil companies in a populist speech that sought to turn the blame for gas prices nearing $4 a gallon back onto his Republican critics.
In campaign-style remarks delivered from the Rose Garden, Obama told lawmakers that they can "stand with big oil companies, or they can stand with the American people."
Senate Democrats followed by forcing a vote to end tax cuts for the five largest oil companies, which Republicans resoundingly defeated.
"With record profits and rising production, I'm not worried about the big oil companies," Obama said. "I think it's time they got by without more help from taxpayers who are having a tough enough time paying their bills and filling up their tanks."
Obama raised the issue of rising gas prices outside the Beltway last week in a tour of four states important to domestic energy production -- three of them in play for the November election. In addition, the administration apparently has worked to arrange a global release of emergency petroleum reserves to reduce the price of oil, according to reports from French officials.
On Thursday, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said there was a "good chance" that the United States and Europe would tap their reserves.
The White House would not confirm the report, saying only that an emergency release is "on the table, but no decisions have been made."
The efforts underscore the political and economic vulnerability created by the increase in gas prices. Republicans hammered Democrats all week, arguing that Obama's energy policy should move far more aggressively to encourage domestic production.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, circulated research from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service showing that increasing taxes on oil companies would likely increase prices for consumers.
Teeing up the debate, Senate Democrats introduced a measure to end $24 billion in tax cuts and authorize new tax credits for alternative energy.
"Is this really the best we can do?" Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, RR-Ky., asked before the vote.
The measure failed when 51 senators voted for cloture but 60 votes were needed to move to final passage.
The one short-term economic weapon in Obama's arsenal may be tapping emergency oil reserves. The United States has 700 million barrels of crude sitting in its Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which is stored in salt caverns near the Gulf of Mexico. But experts are divided over whether now is the right time for countries to tap their strategic reserves. The reserves, tapped only three times in its 37-year history, were designed to be used in the event of a severe supply disruption -- and not merely to combat high prices.