May 12, 2011 -- Congress will grill Big Oil executives at what is likely to be a contentious hearing on Capitol Hill today amid widespread anger over high gas prices.
The Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Montana Democrat Max Baucus, is poised to question Chevron's John Watson, Shell's Marvin Odum, BP's Lamar McKay, ConocoPhillips' James Mulva, and Exxon's Rex Tillerson.
It is all part of an effort by Democrats to push a new bill that would scrap tax breaks for the five companies, the biggest and most profitable ones in the country. Democrats want to cut about $2 billion per year in tax subsidies for the companies and use the savings to pay down the nation's soaring federal deficit.
"Every year, oil companies get billions of dollars of subsidies from the American taxpayers," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday.
"Common sense tells us these oil companies do not need these huge subsidies. We've had executives of these oil companies who have said so in the past. Recently, the former CEO of Shell has said that. And economists recognize that these subsidies, if we took them away, would not affect gas prices at all. The only purpose these subsidies serve is to line the pockets of these oil companies."
The Senate is set to vote on the measure sometime in the next week, but its chances of passing appear slim to none. The measure will need 60 votes to pass, a tall order in a chamber where there are only 53 Democrats and even some of them -- such as Alaska's Mark Begich and Louisiana's Mary Landrieu -- don't support the measure.
"It's a gimmick," Begich railed on the Senate floor Wednesday, denouncing the bill as "good fodder for the news" but nothing more.
Landrieu, meanwhile, said the bill would not "reduce the price of gas by one penny." It was not the first time the Louisiana lawmaker has blasted attempts to target the industry.
"Every time the companies start making money, people want to tax what they get. But when they're losing money, no one wants to help them because of this sort of bias against oil and gas companies which comes from some sector, you know, of our democracy," Landrieu said at a March 10 news conference.
"We want to create more millionaires in America. We want to create more wealth in America, so we've got to be careful about continuing to pick on this industry every time somebody is looking for a dime around Washington, D.C.," she added.
Republicans have lined up in opposition to the Democrats' new bill.
"Every time gas prices go up, Democrats claim there's nothing they can do about it," the Senate's top Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said Monday. "Then they propose something completely counterproductive just to quiet their critics. This time it's a tax increase. That is the Democrat response to high gas prices: a tax hike.
"Well, the first thing to say about this proposal is that it won't do a thing to lower gas prices. In fact, raising taxes on American energy production will increase the price of gas. Oh, and it would also make us even more dependent on foreign sources of oil.
"That's not my view," he added. "That's the view of the independent Congressional Research Service, which concluded in March that the Democrat's proposed tax increase on energy production would, 'make oil and natural gas more expensive for U.S. consumers and likely increase foreign dependence.' Sounds like a brilliant strategy."
Congress Scheduled to Grill Big Oil on Subsidies
Across Capitol Hill, House Republicans have shown little appetite to back what could be seen as a vote to raise taxes. House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio told ABC News in an exclusive interview last month that oil companies deserve a share of the blame for rising gasoline prices and that he believes reviewing oil subsidies is "certainly something we should be looking at."
But Boehner later backed off the comments and indicated that he does not want to consider the Democrats' bill.
The bill, known as the "Close Big Oil Tax Loopholes Act," would cut about $2 billion per year in tax subsidies for the five major oil companies by eliminating the domestic manufacturing tax deduction and closing a loophole Democrats say "amounts to the U.S. government subsidizing foreign oil production."
The bill's sponsors -- Democrats Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Claire McCaskill of Missouri -- are all up for reelection next year.
"There is more hot air around this building about deficit reduction than any other topic right now, and if we cannot end subsidies to the five biggest most profitable corporations in the history of the planet that come from the federal taxpayer, then I don't think anyone should take us seriously about deficit reduction," McCaskill said at a news conference Tuesday. "The bottom line is this: If we can't do this, if we can't remove subsides from these profitable big oil companies, then I don't know if we can ever get to the really difficult work that lies ahead."
Menendez said, "If the big five oil companies could just live with $123 billion in profits in 2011, they could pay their fair share in taxes, help lower the deficit and not raise the price of gasoline, and all of the savings here go directly to deficit reduction. This is not an argument about there's other spending we'd like to do; this is about going directly to deficit reduction.
"I don't think that the average American paying nearly $4 a gallon at the pump is going to believe that Big Oil needs another penny and a half out of them in order to earn another $2 billion. I don't think anybody believes that."
Democrats, led by Menendez, even gathered Wednesday at an Exxon station on Capitol Hill where regular gas was $4.29 a gallon to urge the Big Five oil companies to give up taxpayer-funded subsidies in an effort to bring down the deficit.
"Tell the truth," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said. "You don't need this subsidy, and it ought to go to reducing the deficit."
Thursday's hearing is scheduled to start at 9 a.m.ABC News' John R. Parkinson and Arlette Saenz contributed to this report.