The White House is seizing on House Speaker John Boehner's surprising comments that lawmakers ought to "take a look at" eliminating some subsidies for oil and gas companies.
In a letter fired off to congressional leaders on Tuesday, Obama said he was "heartened" by Boehner's remarks, which came in an ABC News interview and seemed to be a concession to Democrats who have long sought to abandon the subsidies.
"Our political system has for too long avoided and ignored this important step, and I hope we can get together in a bipartisan manner to get this done," the president wrote in a letter circulated to the media.
The president has proposed eliminating $4 billion in subsidies to oil and gas companies, calling them wasteful handouts to profitable companies. Republicans have long argued that they are necessary to keep the energy industry competitive and encourage domestic oil exploration.
A Boehner spokesman quickly shut down the possibility that the speaker was moving closer to the president's proposal.
"The speaker wants to increase the supply of American energy and reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and he is only interested in reforms that actually lower energy costs and create American jobs," Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said in a statement. "Unfortunately, what the president has suggested so far would simply raise taxes and increase the price at the pump."
Still, the White House was gleeful about the speaker's remarks, which seemed to be something of a concession, and an opportunity to score points on a potent issue. The subsidies are unpopular, particularly during periods of rising gas prices.
Asked Monday if he would be in favor of abandoning "some of these subsidies that are going to big oil at times of record profits," Boehner said: "We certainly ought to take a look at it." He later qualified the statement by saying he wanted to see more details.
"I want to see the facts. I don't want to hear a bunch of political rhetoric," he said. "That's look at the facts. And what will it do to have-- its impact on jobs. You know, the number one issue in my district and around the country is where are the jobs? And I want to know what impact this is going to have on job creation here in America."
On Tuesday, the White House press secretary told reporters that "tax breaks for the oil companies" are unnecessary at a time of rising gas prices.
"This is an issue of hardship for Americans today," said Obama spokesman Jay Carney, denying that the letter was politically motivated.
Americans paying high prices at the pump "are not thinking about a presidential election," he said, and "neither is the president."
"I can assure you, that's not how we're looking at it," he said.