Washington — Congress voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to challenge President Bush to temporarily halt the daily shipment of thousands of barrels of oil into the government's emergency reserve.
Lawmakers disagreed on what - if any - impact the suspension might have on gasoline prices and acknowledged it was but "a modest step" in addressing public anger over soaring energy costs.
Bush has steadfastly refused to halt shipments of about 70,000 barrel barrels of oil a day into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a system of salt caverns on the Gulf coast. The reserve, created to respond to major oil supply disruptions, holds 701 million barrels and is at 97 percent of capacity.
"There is no evidence that (suspending shipments) will affect the price of oil or gasoline in a meaningful way," said White House spokesman Scott Stanzel. He said the president opposes any congressional mandate to stop deliveries and believes Congress should focus on broader energy issues.
The Senate voted 97-1 to suspend the shipments for the rest of the year. Hours later, the House followed suit, voting 385-25 to halt the deliveries. The votes don't compel Bush to act because the measures differ somewhat and would need to be reconciled before final congressional approval.
Still the votes were symbolic, in their strong bipartisan support, of lawmakers' frustrations at not being able to agree on anything more substantive in response to public anger over near $4 a gallon gasoline and oil prices in the $125 a barrel range.
"We are buying the most expensive crude oil in the history of the world and storing it," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. "When American consumers are burning at the stake by high energy prices, the government ought not be carrying the wood."
Earlier, the Senate rejected, 56-42, a broader Republican energy plan that called for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and some offshore waters that are now off-limits to oil development.