Obama Defends His Record on Gas Prices, Budget Talks and Libya

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President Obama today rejected GOP criticisms that he has not done enough to address the rising price of oil and that his Administration had helped cause the spike by limiting domestic oil and gas production.

“Last year, American oil production reached its highest level since 2003,” Obama told reporters in a wide-ranging press conference at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building today. “Oil production from federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico reached an all-time high.  For the first time in more than a decade, imports accounted for less than half of what we consumed. So any notion that my administration has shut down oil production might make for a good political sound bite, but it doesn’t match up with reality.”

Congressional Republicans have been hammering Obama all week on energy prices. The price of gas is over $3.50 a gallon as oil reached $100 a barrel due to speculation over the turmoil in the Middle East — in actuality the unrest has yet to cause any major disruptions. “The Obama Administration has consistently blocked American energy production that would lower costs and create new jobs,” House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement yesterday. “They’ve cancelled leases for new exploration, jeopardized new nuclear energy, and imposed a de facto drilling moratorium.  They’ve even pushed a ‘cap and trade’ national energy tax that the president himself admitted would cause energy costs to ‘skyrocket.’”

Obama acknowledged that there was more that he could and would do. He said he was directing the Interior Department to push idle companies that own leases of tens of millions of acres of federal lands. He said his Administration is exploring other offshore production possibilities in the Atlantic and on- and offshore in Alaska – though he noted the importance of proceeding with caution as “we’re only a few months removed from the worst oil spill in our history.” And, he said if things get really bad he would be willing to open up the Strategic Petroleum Reserves – but only in the case of dire emergencies like a Hurricane Katrina or an OPEC boycott as was seen in the 1970’s, when the reserve was created.

Obama also discussed the ongoing budget fight on Capitol Hill, urging members to find a long-term resolution as quickly as possible. “We can’t keep on running the government based on two-week extensions,” he lamented. “That’s irresponsible. We’ve got a war in Afghanistan going on. We’ve got a wide range of issues facing the country on a day-to-day basis.”

That said, he warned Republicans that there are some cuts he would be unwilling to accept, such as those to Pell Grants and Head Start. “We’re going to make sure that we hold the line when it comes to some critical programs that are either going to help us out-educate, out-innovate, or out-build other countries,” he said.

He also said he disapproved of the dozens of so-called riders in the House bill which seek to defund everything from health care reform to the EPA’s rule-making process on carbon emissions. “If Republicans are interested in social issues that they want to promote, they should put a bill on the floor of the House and promote it, have an up or down vote, send it over to the Senate,” Obama said. “But don’t try to use the budget as a way to promote a political or ideological agenda.”

When asked about criticisms that he hasn’t been involved in the budget talks, Obama said he has spoken with the leaders of both parties and both chamber of Congress. “What I’ve done is, every day I talk to my team, I give them instructions in terms of how they can participate in the negotiations, indicate what’s acceptable, indicate what’s not acceptable,” Obama said. “And our expectation is, is that we should be able to get this completed.” Congress next week is expected to pass a three-week extension coupled with $6 billion in bipartisan cuts to allow House and Senate negotiators more time to finish the bigger bill. Government funding runs out a week from today if nothing is done.

On the international front, Obama began his remarks by extending his deepest condolences to the Japanese in the wake of a devastating earthquake and tsunami early this morning. Obama said he has directed U.S. forces and embassy staff to offer whatever aid is available and to work to account for all U.S. personnel and citizens. “Today’s events remind us of just how fragile life can be,” Obama said. “Our hearts go out to our friends in Japan and across the region and we’re going to stand with them as they recover and rebuild from this tragedy.”

The President was asked repeatedly about the situation in Libya where he underlined his support for the free Libyan people and said Muammar Gaddafi must go. “The bottom line is, is that I have not taken any options off the table at this point” including a no-fly zone or U.S. troop involvement, Obama said. “I think it is important to understand that we have moved about as swiftly as an international coalition has ever moved to impose sanctions on Gaddafi. I am absolutely clear that it is in the interest of the United States, and more importantly, in the interest of the Libyan people for Mr. Gaddafi to leave.”