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Clinton Releases 12 Million Barrels from Reserve to Turn Back Gas Price Hikes

By John F. Harris and Helen Dewar
The Washington Post

With soaring gasoline prices rapidly threatening to become a political liability, President Clinton Monday announced that he was ordering the sale of about 12 million barrels of oil from the nation's strategic petroleum reserves.

Clinton said he was taking this action because he was "concerned about the rise in gasoline prices at the pump," but senior White House and Energy Department officials refused to offer even ballpark predictions about what effect unloading the 12 million barrels - less than what the country consumes in one day - would have on prices. As of April 23, the average gallon of self-serve regular cost $1.29 in the Washington area, up by nearly 20 cents from the start of the year, according to the American Automobile Association.

This rapid escalation had recently become a partisan issue. Republicans Monday moved ahead on Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole's call for a repeal of a 4.3 cent-per-gallon increase in the gasoline tax passed with Clinton's support in 1993 - while the White House and congressional Democrats indicated a wary willingness to talk about the proposal.

Clinton said he was also ordering Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary to investigate and report back to him in 45 days on "factors that led to the run-up in prices." Some congressional Democrats have questioned whether price-gouging may have played a role, but administration officials didn't present any evidence that this had occurred.

White House officials said they had been studying what substantive actions to take to deal with price run-ups for several days, but acknowledged that the GOP pressure helped spur them to announce the move on petroleum reserves late Monday, while on a political visit to Florida.

"There's no question that in the face of the demagoguery in the Senate, the president wanted to take action - real action," said White House senior advisor George Stephanopoulos. "He's a doer, not a talker," Stephanopoulos said, turning around Dole's frequent criticism of the president.

The administration's economists believed that oil prices are likely to drop on their own this summer, but believe that this action "will nudge that along" more quickly, according to a senior White House official.