Prices at a US gasoline station (file)
Prices at a US gasoline station (file)

Both Democratic and Repubican lawmakers are calling on the Obama administration to take steps to lower soaring gas prices, saying the prices are hurting Americans every time they have to fill up their cars.  The Senate is set to hold a test vote Tuesday on legislation that would raise taxes and end subsidies for the five largest private oil companies and direct that money to lower the national deficit.

The Democratic leadership in the Senate is shining a bright spotlight on big oil companies and oil refineries. while the Republican-led House has passed legislation aimed at expanding and speeding up oil drilling in the United States.

Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri is one of several Democratic senators who wrote a letter to the Federal Trade Commission  asking the commission to investigate whether oil refineries may be cutting back on their gasoline stockpiles to keep gas prices artificially high.

"Not only have they cut back the capacity of their refineries in terms of how much oil they are processing to move along the supply chain for gasoline, they are also exporting more to other countries - oil that they have produced here in this country," she said.

McCaskill and other Democratic senators said oil refineries have cut back their capacity from almost 90 percent to 81 percent, at a time when consumers are suffering from surging oil prices.  They said that oil refineries have doubled their profit margins in less than six months, and want the FTC to investigate whether or not this amounts to price-fixing.

At a Senate Energy Committee hearing Wednesday, both Democratic and Republican lawmakers said their constituents are being hit especially hard by high gas prices at a time of economic uncertainty.  Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia appealed to the Obama administration for help.

"The high price is killing all of us. In West Virginia a day does not go by that I do not have phone calls and letters," Manchin said.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told the Senate panel that there is no quick and easy answer to bring gas prices down.

"So there is no quick fix to the high price of gas for us now, because of the fact that it is set on the global market, and the fact that you have countries like China that are using much more oil and gas than they ever have in the past and so it is important for us to have the long view," Salazar said.

Salazar said the Obama administration has acted quickly to improve safety standards in the wake of last year's Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest oil spill in history, that left eleven people dead.

In his weekly address on Saturday, President Obama said he believes that oil production should be expanded in the United States- with safety and environmental standards being strengthened at the same time.

"To do this, I am directing the Department of Interior to conduct annual lease sales in Alaska?s National Petroleum Reserve, while respecting sensitive areas, and to speed up the evaluation of oil and gas resources in the mid and south Atlantic.  We plan to lease new areas in the Gulf of Mexico as well, and work to create new incentives for industry to develop their unused leases both on and offshore," the president said.

Mr. Obama conceded that his initiatives will not impact current gasoline prices. He says a task force is now investigating fraud and any suspected price fixing, which may influence what consumers pay at the gasoline pump.

The House of Representatives is also focused on energy legislation. Last week the Republican-controlled House passed three drilling-related bills which differ from the Senate agenda. The legislation aims to expedite approvals of oil drilling permits, reverse President Obama?s imposed moratorium on deepwater drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf and to set a national goal for oil and gas production.