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Democrats embrace politically risky strategy on rising gas prices

WASHINGTON - President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats united Tuesday behind a ban on Russian oil and natural gas imports, embracing a politically risky strategy that is expected to drive up already-rising fuel prices while seeking to pin the blame for Americans' pain at the pump on Vladimir Putin.

In a speech announcing the ban, Biden acknowledged it would probably result in more expensive gas for consumers in the United States, a potentially perilous admission for a president who has been scrambling to head off Republican attacks over the rising cost of groceries, rent and other items.

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Biden frequently named the Russian president as he explained his decision. "Putin's war is already hurting American families at the gas pump," he said. "Since Putin began his military buildup on Ukrainian borders - just since then - the price of the gas at the pump in America went up 75 cents. And with this action, it's going to go up further. I'm going to do everything I can to minimize Putin's price hike here at home."

Biden's directive quickly sharpened battle lines ahead of the November midterms. Many Republicans also embraced the ban on Russian oil, which the White House hoped would make it harder for them to attack Biden. But GOP leaders quickly noted that gas prices were climbing even before Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and they blamed Biden's limits on domestic oil production for exacerbating the shortfall.

"Don't be fooled," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said. "This was more than a year in the making."

Republicans have also opened up new lines of attack over the Biden administration's engagement with Venezuela and other oppressive foreign governments as it looks for alternative energy suppliers. In Florida, where there is deep animosity toward Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., a candidate for Senate, said Monday that she was "deeply skeptical of the new talks." Republicans criticized her for not being more forceful.

But it is inflation that is emerging as a central focus of both parties in the run-up to the November midterms, and Tuesday's announcement in some ways marked an attempt by Biden to recast the debate by linking rising prices to the fight against tyranny.

"The good news is we now have a very specific reason for rising gas prices and a specific villain," said Celinda Lake, who served as one of Biden's top campaign pollsters in 2020 and currently polls for Biden-aligned groups. "Before, it was kind of ambiguous: What's going on? Why are gas prices going up?"

Lake added that Putin is "a villain that we agree on and the Republicans are divided on," alluding to divisions in the GOP between some, like former president Donald Trump, who have praised Putin and others, like McConnell, who have been critical of the Russian leader.

In his comments Tuesday, Biden also warned oil companies against price gouging, suggesting another potential villain if prices continue to rise.

It remains to be seen how much gas prices will increase following Biden's Russian oil ban and what actions Democrats might take to ease the burden on U.S. consumers. Some vulnerable Democratic senators called for a pause on the federal gas tax, an idea to which the White House has signaled openness but has stopped short of endorsing.

One aide to a vulnerable Democratic House member, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive dynamics, said there was no easy way to counter the Republican attacks. Part of the challenge, some Democrats said, is that presidents have far less power to sway gas prices than many voters think.

"Historically, people automatically blame presidents for gas prices," said Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who aligns with Democrats, but "rarely have I seen them give presidents credit when they come down."

Prices on a variety of goods have climbed more steeply in recent months than they have in decades, largely because of the economy's rapid recovery from its pandemic-induced struggles, a blaring danger sign for a party seeking to hold on to narrow congressional majorities. After Biden administration officials labeled inflation a "transitory" development for months, they have become more vocal about its impact on Americans and government efforts to curtail it.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has prompted Biden and his top aides to repeatedly remind Americans of the costs associated with punishing Moscow, a point the president reiterated Tuesday. The Democratic bet, for the moment, is that Americans will be willing to tolerate those costs, particularly amid round-the-clock cable news showing the atrocities of the war in sometimes graphic detail.

Seventy-one percent of Americans say they support banning Russian oil even if it means higher gas prices, according to a Quinnipiac University survey released Monday. That included majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents.

The White House sought to capitalize on that sentiment, distributing talking points to allies encouraging them to cite bipartisan support for "cutting off the strength of Putin's economy and war machine: energy." Biden underlined the point, saying of the Russian oil ban, "This is a step that we're taking to inflict further pain on Putin, but there will be costs as well here in the United States."

The question for Democrats is whether Americans' emotional support for Ukrainians would continue to outweigh an ongoing rise in gas prices, especially if the war - and inflation - drag on. The midterms are still eight months away, enough time for sentiments to change dramatically.

For now, Republicans in Congress are largely aligned with Democrats on the Russian oil and gas ban. "I strongly support America stopping purchasing Putin's oil," McConnell said on Twitter.

Biden's announcement came after days of pressure, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and others championed the ban publicly. Few Democrats on Tuesday expressed any public qualms about the oil ban, including some of the Senate's most vulnerable incumbents. The said it was morally and geopolitically untenable for the United States to continue putting dollars directly into Putin's war machine by buying Russian oil.

"I think we have to do everything we can," said Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., who faces reelection in a closely contested state this fall, adding that she has favored "crippling" sanctions from the beginning of the conflict.

"My focus, of course, is on voters in Nevada, but I know that Nevadans also stand up for democracy, and I have heard from so many Nevadans that are just outraged by what they see happening," Cortez Masto said.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who is also up for reelection, said "Americans are willing to make sacrifices" to support Ukraine. "Here's the blunt truth: No matter what we do on imports of Russian oil, the person responsible for inflation at the gas pump is Vladimir Putin," he said, echoing Biden.

But Blumenthal also warned that the Biden administration and Congress need to pursue all other options to prevent runaway gas prices, from a suspension of the gas tax to pressuring OPEC to increase supplies to "persuading" domestic producers to boost their own output.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said various options to counteract rising gas prices are under consideration, but she declined to give specifics. She also pointed to the administration's previous move to release oil from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

While Russian oil accounts for only a small portion of U.S. imports, it represent a much bigger share of European purchases. The European Commission on Tuesday unveiled a plan to cut Russian gas imports by about two-thirds.

Together, the actions of the United States and its European allies could jolt the markets at an already tumultuous moment. Gas cost Americans more than $4.17 a gallon on Tuesday, according to AAA's national average.

Republicans are rejecting Biden's efforts to lay the blame for gas prices solely at Putin's feet. Most, for example, fault the Biden administration's decision to block the Keystone XL pipeline that would have carried crude oil from western Canada to U.S. refiners, as well as its moratorium on new drilling leases on federal lands.

"This has been an all-points assault on the development of U.S. oil and gas resources, so this is not isolated - this is part of a pattern," said Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La. "And keep in mind, gas prices are high now, before they banned Russian gas. So I wouldn't suddenly start blaming high gas prices upon this measure."

But the Keystone XL was less than 10% complete when Biden took office, so it would not now, or in the near future, be in operation. And while new federal leases have stopped, drillers are sitting on thousands of unused leases and have cited market conditions and lack of investment as the more serious obstacles to greater domestic production.

Still, Republicans from the biggest oil-producing states continued to press Biden to go further. "You've got a lot of countries in Europe that don't have the ability to increase their production. We do," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who is up for reelection this year.

Since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, the oil industry has tried to capitalize on instability in the global market and Americans' fear of rising prices by calling for increases in domestic production.

Even as U.S. oil production is on the rebound from its pandemic lows and is expected to reach record levels in 2023, the American Petroleum Institute has accused the Biden administration of holding the industry back through its climate policies. In addition to calling on administration officials to resume oil and gas leasing on public lands, it has urged them to speed approvals of new infrastructure for exporting liquefied natural gas, known as LNG.

Still, most oil production in the United States takes place on private and state-owned land, and it could take years for new wells to be drilled even if federal policies were to change. In recent days, major oil companies in the United States have said they would rather use their earnings from higher prices to boost payouts to shareholders and expand their operations slowly, rather than rush to drill new wells.

Some Democrats are seizing on the current crisis to renew their argument that the way to cut America's dependence on foreign oil is through renewable energy and reduced consumption, not by boosting America's own production of oil and natural gas, given the existential threat of climate change.

Biden said Tuesday that the current situation should "motivate us to accelerate the transition to clean energy," a refrain other Democrats have echoed this week. Biden's failure to enact a sweeping climate and social spending plan last year that he spent months negotiating left many environmentalists demoralized.

The path ahead for passing climate legislation, already less than clear, has become even murkier amid the Russia-Ukraine war. Democrats' efforts to push for such measures have quickly become a political target for Republicans seeking to cast them as out of touch with the immediate needs of Americans.

- - -

The Washington Post's Anna Phillips contributed to this report.

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