Politics

Republicans Pushed Biden to Ban Russian Oil. Now They’ll Attack Him for the Results.

Democrats are well aware they could be walking into a political trap.

Gasoline prices are seen on a gas pump in Arlington, Virginia, on March 8, 2022. - The AAA reported the average price of gas in the US on March 8 was $4.173 per gallon. US President Joe Biden announced a ban on US imports of Russian oil on Tuesday, in the administration's most far-reaching action yet to punish Moscow for invading Ukraine. (Photo by Daniel SLIM / AFP) (Photo by DANIEL SLIM/AFP via Getty Images)
Gasoline prices are seen on a gas pump in Arlington, Virginia, on March 8, 2022. DANIEL SLIM/Getty Images

Would Republicans, after joining many Democrats to successfully urge the Biden administration to bar Russian energy imports, then turn to blame Democrats in power for even higher prices at the pump? Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy chose to answer this question with committed sarcasm.

“That’s not gonna happen!” Murphy told reporters on Tuesday, after President Biden announced the ban. “I trust that Republicans are going to put the national security of this country ahead of their political interests, and are going to offer no criticism of gas prices when they go up.”

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There’s been some discussion, as Congress and the White House had kicked around the idea of the ban, as to whether Republicans were “laying a trap” for Democrats.

“They’re demanding he take actions that will raise gasoline prices,” Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell wrote this week, “with obvious plans to attack him politically after the prices rise.”

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For it to be a “trap,” though, Democrats would need to be unaware of what they were walking into.

“Of course Republicans are going to savage Democrats for an increase in gas prices, and will not reference their support for a Russian oil embargo at all,” Murphy, stepping down from the sarcasm, went on. “We just need to be ready for that, that Republicans are not going to play this straight.”

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So what, then, is their plan to defang these coming attacks?

The first argument is a moral one. Even if the United States, which imports much less oil from Russia than its European allies, won’t blow a devastating hole in Russia’s economy through its embargo, it’s a necessary move to ensure “we will not be part of subsidizing Putin’s war,” as President Biden said in announcing the move Tuesday. Biden didn’t hide that this could hurt American consumers at a time when gas prices were already spiking.

“I said I would level with the American people from the beginning,” Biden. “And when I first spoke to this, I said defending freedom is going to cost—it’s going to cost us as well, in the United States.” He dubbed it the “Putin price hike.”

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Moral cases are often political losers. But as the country, and the West, rally to Ukraine’s defense, the public is receptive to this one. A recent Quinnipiac poll showed that 71 percent of Americans would support a ban on Russian oil “if it meant higher gasoline prices in the United States.”

“I think most Americans are outraged by what Putin has done, and the terror that’s been wrought on the Ukrainian people,” Delaware Sen. Tom Carper told reporters. “And if we have to pay a bit more of a price … to bring Putin to his knees, I think most people would say if that’s a burden we have to pay for a short while, that’s a price more than worth paying.”

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For a short while, sure. But how sustainable is that attitude?

“I’m all for doing this,” Murphy said. “But it’s really easy for Washington D.C. elites to tell the country they should pay higher gas prices, they can afford it. A lot of my constituents can’t. So I would rather phase this in on a schedule that allows us to thoughtfully replace Russian resources with other resources.”

The administration has been tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to blunt oil prices, and will continue doing so. Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey, a climate hawk, argued that there’s enough in in the SPR to offset the loss of Russian oil imports for up to 1,000 days.

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The administration has also been, as Carper put it, “looking into bringing in oil from some countries down south” to offset the supply shock. Specifically, he was talking about Venezuela, with which the U.S. administration is set to holds talks. Reports of these talks have met fury from Republicans and Democratic hawks alike. Defenders of the administration’s talks, though, would argue that the acute need to cut off Russia necessitates it.

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“If you have an economy that runs on oil, you are doing business with dictators,” Murphy said. “I’m not exactly sure how much better [Saudi Crown Prince] Mohammad bin Salman is than [Venezuelan President] Nicolas Maduro. Republicans seem to be very concerned about Venezuelan oil; seemed to be not concerned at all about Saudi oil. So this is a reason why you should get off of foreign oil.” That’s a sentiment both parties can agree on, while having wildly different ideas of how to achieve it.

But aside from pushing the moral case behind the decision and backfilling the loss in supply from either domestic reserves or new international imports, Democrats will be quick to remind the public of Republicans’ buy-in on this.

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If Republicans try to politicize the gas price increases resulting from the Russia-Ukraine war, Montana Sen. Jon Tester said, “hopefully the American people understand that I stood on the stage with three other Republicans, and three Democrats the other day talking about stopping oil imports.”

“I think the American people are smarter” than that, he said.

There’s also discussion about whether the House and Senate should still try to pass a legislative ban on importing Russian oil. Even if superfluous on top of the administrative ban, it could serve as a useful means of getting Republicans’ support for the move, and its attendant increase in gas prices, on-the-record. Murphy, however, didn’t know if “a roll call vote is additive to their public statements.”

Republicans on Tuesday were supportive of the move, even while continuing to trash Biden’s overall energy policy. And, yes, despite Murphy’s sarcasm, even some Republicans would admit that they would have political ownership over what new spikes were to come.

“I think we own some of that,” North Dakota Sen. Cramer told reporters. “I mean, it’s hard for us to escape some of it, because we’ve been advocating for this, taking the lead on this very thing.”

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