Seizing on an unexpected political opportunity, President Obama urged Congress to repeal tax breaks for oil companies and said he was "heartened" that the Republican House speaker had revived the idea.
Although Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) may have veered a bit from GOP talking points on taxes this week — telling a television interviewer that the government is low on revenue and oil companies ought to pay "their fair share" — an aide said Boehner did not advocate the sweeping repeal of subsidies that the president supported.
But Obama tried to make the most of the speaker's comments, which came in an ABC "World News" interview Monday. The president dashed off a letter to congressional leaders Tuesday reminding them that "high oil and gasoline prices are weighing on the minds and pocketbooks of every American family."
The back-and-forth came amid Republican demands for spending cuts, with some suggesting they might not vote to raise the federal government's debt limit in mid-May unless the administration agrees to significant reductions. If Congress fails to raise that ceiling when the country reaches it, the U.S. would default on its debts within a few months.
Obama has proposed reducing the deficit through a mixture of budget cuts and ending tax breaks for the wealthy, but Republicans are resistant to the idea of tax increases.
In his letter to congressional leaders, Obama said he was encouraged by Boehner's remarks, which seemed to be a concession to Democrats who have long sought to end 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.
Obama has proposed eliminating subsidies to oil and gas companies, which the administration pegs at $4 billion. Republicans have argued that they are necessary to keep the energy industry competitive and encourage domestic oil exploration.
A Boehner spokesman quickly shot 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. "Unfortunately, what the president has suggested so far would simply raise taxes and increase the price at the pump."
In the ABC News interview, Boehner said eliminating some subsidies was something "we certainly ought to take a look at." But he emphasized that he wanted to see how the details of the president's proposal would affect job creation.
"I want to see the facts. I don't want to hear a bunch of political rhetoric," he said. "You know, the No. 1 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."
Still, the White House was gleeful about the speaker's remarks and used the opportunity to score points with consumers. The subsidies are unpopular, particularly during periods of rising gas prices.
Oil and gas companies are set to announce their earnings soon, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said, adding that "they are expected to be quite large."
"While we certainly are glad to see companies making a profit, we do not believe that given the size of those profits — record profits, in some cases — that they need to be subsidized by the American taxpayer," Carney said. "Especially in these times of constrained budgets and especially when we need to use some of those dollars to invest in clean-energy technology, so that we can build the industries of the future, reduce our dependence on foreign oil and create jobs in America."