Ted Cruz is making waves.
The Republican senator from Texas and likely 2016 presidential contender has started a push to end a decades-old ban on crude exports that could force his fellow Republicans to take tough votes.
Cruz hopes to attach an amendment lifting the ban, which blocks most overseas shipments of U.S. oil, to legislation moving through the Senate to greenlight the Keystone XL oil-sands pipeline.
The push allows Cruz to cast himself as a free-market enabler of the American energy boom, which has unleashed a torrent of crude oil onto the domestic market as a result of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling's one-two punch. It also puts him out front on energy priorities—ahead of others in the Senate considering presidential bids, including Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky, who have so far kept a low profile during the Keystone debate.
Cruz would also be working to advance a policy that major oil producers like Exxon Mobil and ConocoPhillips as well as the American Petroleum Institute, the largest trade association for the oil and gas industry, adamantly support. A powerful coalition of oil refiners, meanwhile, opposes action to lift the restrictions.
Even if it passes the Senate, Cruz's amendment is unlikely to become law. President Obama has promised to veto legislation that would approve the Keystone XL pipeline, and neither the House nor the Senate appears to have the numbers to override it.
The political gambit carries risks regardless.
Opponents of lifting the restrictions—first installed in the mid-1970s during the Arab oil embargo—say ending the export ban would cause gas prices to soar. And despite research indicating that the policy might not spur an increase in gas prices, American voters remain skeptical of reversing the ban.
An amendment vote would also expose a rift among Republicans at a moment when GOP leadership hopes to present a unified front to voters and demonstrate that the party can govern. Every single Republican in the Senate supports the effort to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, but senators' feelings on lifting the crude export ban are all over the map.
A number of high-ranking Republican senators, including John Barrasso of Wyoming and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, vocally support lifting the ban. "Oh, I think the time is absolutely right for debate. We should end the ban," Barrasso said Tuesday in the Capitol.
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been silent on the issue, and other Republicans say they aren't sure that rolling back the restrictions makes sense. McConnell's office did not immediately return a request for comment on how the majority leader plans to vote on the Cruz amendment.
"Lifting the ban? I have not made a decision on that yet but I have concerns," Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said Tuesday. Collins said she believes lawmakers should proceed with caution on the issue and worries that lifting the ban could raise heating prices in her home state.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said that while he supports lifting the ban, he wasn't sure if the push would resonate with the American public. "I don't know. I don't think it's that controversial but maybe I ought to look at it a little more closely," Flake said.
Many Republican senators like Collins remain undecided, and the Cruz amendment could force them to take a position sooner than they had hoped.
Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire both said they did not have a position on the issue yet.
Rubio and Paul have previously said they support ending the ban, but neither senator's office immediately returned a request for comment on whether they plan to support the Cruz amendment.
As the Senate delves into the first wide-ranging energy-policy debate in nearly a decade, McConnell has promised an open amendment process.
That pledge creates an opening for senators like Cruz and presidential hopefuls on the left like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.—who has offered an amendment putting senators on the record on the reality of man-made climate change—a chance to stake a claim on energy policy before hitting the trail.
Cruz expressed optimism on Monday that his amendment will pass.
"I think it's good policy," Cruz said. When asked if he thinks the amendment can garner the likely necessary 60 votes to be approved, Cruz answered: "We shall see."
The amendment that Cruz plans to offer is a small part of much broader energy legislation that the senator proposed last March, which called for increased oil and natural-gas drilling and a general rollback to federal regulation of the fossil fuel industry.
But Republicans aiming to dismantle the crude ban have to contend with opposition from refiners who fear that sending crude abroad will make their operations more expensive.
Last spring, a coalition of domestic refiners, including PBF Energy, launched a lobbying group called Consumers and Refiners United for Domestic Energy that aims to put pressure on lawmakers to keep the ban in place.
It is unclear how much of a split a vote on the ban could cause among Democrats. But a number of high-profile Democrats, most prominently Sens. Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, strongly oppose lifting the ban.
Sixty-nine percent of voters oppose increased crude-oil exports, according to a survey of 1,101 likely voters conducted by the left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress slated to be released on Thursday. The poll did not ask voters about the Cruz amendment.
Gas prices have plummeted steadily since the November midterm elections, with AAA reporting that the national average was $2.12 per gallon on Tuesday.
Supporters of lifting the ban believe that falling pump prices could create a political opening for advancing the policy, but energy experts say that lawmakers may still be wary.
"Gasoline prices have only been falling for a few months, but lawmakers have viewed oil security through the lens of scarcity for four decades," said Kevin Book, the managing director of ClearView Energy Partners.
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