Senators want oil linked to arms deal

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A group of senators called on President Bush on Thursday to halt billions of dollars in sophisticated arms sales to Saudi Arabia and several other Gulf oil producers unless they agree to pump more petroleum, reflecting growing frustration in Congress over soaring energy costs.

Separately, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said that Bush should stop putting 70,000 barrels of oil a day into the government's Strategic Petroleum Reserve, saying the oil would be better left in the market place to help lower prices. The Energy Department recently announced it is extending oil shipments into the reserve, which holds 700 million barrels, through the end of the year.,

And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Thursday he had directed key committee chairmen to begin assembling a package of proposals aimed at addressing the growing impact that high gasoline and other energy prices are having on the economy. Reid declined to say what proposals were being considered. The plan is to bring a package to the Senate floor before Memorial Day.

In a letter to Bush, the senators noted that Saudi Arabia has dropped oil production by about 2 million barrels a day over the last three years as oil prices have soared well over $100 a barrel. Its current production of 8.5 million barrels a day is well below its stated capacity of 11 million barrels a day, the senators said.

"At a time when high energy prices are causing widespread anxiety among American households, we question the merit of rewarding members of OPEC with lucrative arms sales," the senators wrote.

"The Saudis have to understand that this is a two-way street," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said at a news conference. "We provide them weapons ... and then they rake us over the coals when it comes to oil."

Joining Schumer in the letter were Democratic Sens. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

At issue are administration plans to supply Saudi Arabia with $123 million worth of sophisticated precision-guided bomb technology as well as shipments of Patriot missile defense equipment worth $9.7 billion to the United Arab Emirates and a $1.7 billion deal with Kuwait to upgrade their missile systems.

The arms sales are part of an effort by the administration to boost the defenses of friendly Arab nations in the oil-rich Gulf region, particularly against any threat from Iran. Congress typically goes along with such arms deals. When the deals were announced late last year and last January, Congress had 30 days to reject them, but did not act.

The countries, receiving the arms, are three of the 13 members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries that reiterated last month it would not increase oil production, believing there are adequate supplies on the world market.

Schumer accused the White House of "coddling" Saudi Arabia, while he should use the arms deal as leverage to get more oil pumped from Saudi fields. He said if the president doesn't do so, the senators will press for a resolution to block the deals. The success of such a resolution is doubtful since it would require 60 votes to pass and would almost certainly be vetoed by the president.

Vice President Dick Cheney concluded a brief visit to Saudi Arabia last weekend, but it was not clear whether he asked the Saudis to increase oil production. Bush in March expressed disappointment that the OPEC countries had refused to pump more oil, noting that the world's economic problems as a result of high energy prices could hurt producing nations as well.


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