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Under fire over oil prices, president to press Saudi leader

Delivering on pledges proves difficult for Bush

WASHINGTON -- Running for president five years ago, George W. Bush pledged to jawbone energy-exporting nations to keep oil prices low and vowed to win passage of legislation to spur more domestic energy production.

Delivering on either count has proved difficult for the Texas oilman.

Soaring oil and gasoline prices are beginning to take a toll on US economic growth and on Bush's approval ratings.

To get his long-stalled energy agenda passed, the president is putting more of his political prestige on the line.

The House voted 249 to 183 last week for White House-backed legislation that would give tax cuts and subsidies to energy companies and open a wildlife refuge in Alaska to oil exploration.

Bush has promised to press Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, at a meeting tomorrow at Bush's Texas ranch, to do more to help ease global oil prices.

Still, the president acknowledges that there is little that he or Congress can do to quickly lower gasoline prices, which have climbed past $2.20 a gallon nationwide.

Critics also say that Bush's energy bill does little to promote conservation or alternate energy approaches, and that he has done little of the lobbying of oil-country leaders that he promised during his first presidential campaign.

Robert Ebel, an energy analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said nothing that Bush is proposing ''is going to have any immediate, or even near-term impact" on prices.

Bush is responding politically to consumer concerns that ''gasoline prices are high; we haven't yet entered the summer driving season, and what is the president going to do about it?" Ebel said.

Ebel said increasing world demand for oil, particularly from China, and lack of new refineries in the United States will exacerbate the problem for years.

With his Social Security overhaul plan winning few converts, Bush may find that promoting his energy agenda has a more immediate political payoff for jittery Republicans.

In a speech last week, Bush said high prices are ''like a foreign tax on the American dream."

He challenged Congress to send him an energy bill by August and described the proposal as making energy ''more affordable and secure" in the future.

Similar legislation passed the House twice in Bush's first term, only to bog down in the Senate under a Democratic filibuster that was waged, in part, to protest possible exploratory drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

Crude oil prices have risen 40 percent in the past year. But finding ways to curb them pose a particular dilemma for Bush -- complicated by his own actions.

The war in Iraq, for instance, limited Bush's influence among Persian Gulf oil-producing nations.

The president recently ruled out releasing oil from the nation's emergency stockpile, saying he would only tap the 700 million-barrel reserve in a national crisis.

Bush criticized President Clinton for tapping into the reserve in 2000, suggesting it was a political gesture to help Vice President Al Gore, then Bush's Democratic rival for the White House.

Bush also criticized the Clinton administration for not lobbying the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, saying Clinton ''must jawbone OPEC members to lower prices." Yet as president, Bush mostly has emphasized that market forces should set world oil prices.

In a CNBC interview, Bush said he would press the Saudi crown prince to boost production.

''I'll be talking to our friends about making sure they understand that if they pinch the world economy too much, it'll affect their ability to sell crude oil in the long run," Bush said.

Still, he said, there is a chance the Saudis already are pumping crude at ''near capacity" levels. Ahead of the crown prince's visit, Saudi Arabia said it would do what it could to step up oil production.

Saudi oil minister Ali Naimi said the kingdom is now pumping about 9.5 million barrels per day and could increase that to 12.5 million barrels per day by 2009 if necessary to maintain ''market stability."

But, he told a conference in Paris, ''The measures taken by OPEC in general and by Saudi Arabia in particular are only a few factors among those which affect oil prices; consequently, our influence is limited."

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