US senators threaten Saudi arms deal over oil prices
A group of US senators Tuesday threatened to block a billion dollar US arms deal with Saudi Arabia unless the kingdom ups oil production and helps cut soaring gasoline prices.
The senators, all Democrats, introduced a resolution of disapproval on the arms sale, as President George W. Bush prepared to head for Saudi Arabia, partly on a mission to contain runaway oil prices.
"We are saying to the Saudis that, if you don't help us, why should we be helping you?" said New York Senator Chuck Schumer.
"We are saying that we need real relief, and we need it quickly. You need our arms, but we need you to cooperate and not strangle American consumers."
The resolution, expected to be fast-tracked to the Senate floor, would prohibit the mammoth arms sale unless Saudi Arabia agrees to increase oil production by one million barrels per day.
Schumer, speaking as the price of a barrel of crude oil hit a record 126.98 dollars, said the extra Saudi oil could bring down the price of a gallon (3.8 liters) of gasoline at the pump by 50 to 75 cents.
"We're losing our wealth. Our economy is heading south. That is the highest priority, not the Saudis getting the top-notch weapons," Schumer said.
The American Automobile Association said the average price of a gallon of gas in the United States hit a record 3.73 dollars on Tuesday, 66 cents or 21 percent higher than a year ago.
The United States offered last year to sell Saudi Arabia and Gulf states a 20 billion dollar arms package, as part of a wider regional program aimed at deterring Iran and Syria, Lebanon's Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda.
Schumer specifically mentions 1.4 billion dollars in arms for Saudi Arabia, including 900 kits which turn conventional bombs into laser-guided explosives, or Joint Direct Attack Munitions.
Schumer said a motion of disapproval needed only 51 votes in the 100-seat Senate to pass and could not be filibustered.
Bush was heading to the Middle East on Tuesday on a tour which commemorates the 75th anniversary of the formal establishment of US-Saudi relations.
The White House has said he will stress US concerns about soaring oil prices when he meets King Abdullah on May 16, and is expected to press the Saudis to boost their oil production as a way of curbing rocketing fuel prices.
As Bush headed for the Middle East, the Senate defied him and passed a bill to halt deposits into the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a move that will put an extra 70,000 barrels of oil onto the market a day.
The move, passed by a 97-1 veto-proof majority, came after the president refused to stop filling the emergency stockpile, which Democrats say is 97 percent full.
"At a time when gas prices are nearing four dollars a gallon and oil is over 120 dollars per barrel, it makes no sense to be taking oil out of our supply chain," said Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan.
Another top Democrat, Senator Joseph Biden, told Bush he must work to ease pressure on oil prices, bolster the government in Lebanon and push for concrete progress between Israel and the Palestinians during his visit.
"Neglect and bad policies have gotten us into a very deep hole in the Middle East," said Biden, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations committee.
"We need determined diplomacy led by the president to prevent lasting damage to American interests and credibility."