Bush rejects calls to release oil from strategic reserve

President, Democrats swap charges over prices


WASHINGTON - President Bush rejected yesterday suggestions that he release oil from the government's strategic reserve in an attempt to ease the price of gasoline, accusing Democrats of "playing politics" over soaring gasoline prices.

The White House has sought to blame congressional Democrats for the price increases, accusing them of blocking energy legislation that Bush has said would have eased the surge.

This week the national average price of gasoline passed $2 a gallon for the first time, and the issue is generating political heat for the president.

"I anticipated this three years ago," Bush said during a photo opportunity at the end of his weekly Cabinet meeting. "I asked my team to put together a strategy to make us less dependent upon foreign sources of energy. ... Congress needs to pass the energy plan."

Experts attribute the price increase - an average 54 cents a gallon for regular unleaded this year - to a number of factors, primarily the cost of crude oil and the inability of U.S. refineries to keep up with rapidly increasing demand, brought on in part by the improving economy.

Democrats accused Bush of misrepresenting the causes of the price increases and the content of his energy plan.

"Everyone knows it [the energy plan] wouldn't affect prices in the near term," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, the top Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "The things that would affect prices in the near term are the president getting on the phone and telling the Saudis and other OPEC [Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries] members to increase production of oil, quit purchasing oil for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve so that can be made available for gasoline this summer, when people are driving.

"There's a series of things that this administration could do which do not require any legislative action, and they've just generally refused to do them."

A group of congressional Democrats has introduced a resolution calling on the administration to allow a release from the strategic reserve of up to 1 million barrels of oil a day for 30 to 60 days.

In his remarks, Bush implied that his critics want to "empty" the reserve. He also linked the issue to the fight against terror.

"The idea of emptying the strategic petroleum reserve ... would put America in a dangerous position in the war on terror," Bush said.

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the likely Democratic presidential nominee, has said it would be premature to release oil from the reserve. But he has called for halting new purchases.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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