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In oil spill shadow, Obama pledges energy bill push

President Barack Obama pledged to find Senate support for a bill to overhaul US energy policy and called for an end to oil company tax breaks in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico spill.

Obama, in remarks at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, also predicted that a May jobs report to be released on Friday would show strong jobs growth.

The president had planned to focus his year on boosting jobs in the United States, where unemployment is hovering near 10%, but other issues -- healthcare reform, changes to financial regulation, and now the BP oil spill -- have distracted attention from that.

Obama, a Democrat, accused Republicans of sitting on the sidelines while his administration worked to rescue the economy and, with November congressional elections looming, used his speech to lambaste the opposition party for opposing initiatives from health insurance reform to tax cuts.

But the president said he would seek Republican support to pass energy legislation in the US Senate despite strong resistance and a crowded legislative schedule.

“The votes may not be there right now, but I intend to find them in the coming months,” Obama said, referring to a bill that is languishing in the Senate.

“I will continue to make the case for a clean energy future wherever and whenever I can. I will work with anyone to get this done. And we will get it done,” he said to applause.

Senate Democrats are expected to plot strategy for dealing with energy and environment legislation in the coming weeks. Prior to Obama's remarks on Wednesday there was little evidence the Senate would take up a comprehensive measure this year.

Republicans are reluctant to hand Obama a political victory on energy ahead of the elections and have focused their criticism on his inability to lower the unemployment rate.

“It's clear from his harsh partisan rhetoric today that President Obama has run out of excuses for his broken promises on the economy,” said John Boehner, the Republican leader in the House of Representatives, which has already passed an energy and climate change bill.

“Instead of creating the jobs and prosperity he promised, President Obama's 'new foundation' consists of more spending, more debt, more job-killing policies, and more permanent bailouts,” Boehner said.

Obama said the oil spill should prompt Americans to acknowledge that the United States could not depend solely on fossil fuels in the future.

That meant tapping into US reserves of natural gas, increasing the number of nuclear power plants, and rolling back “billions of dollars of tax breaks to oil companies so we can prioritize investments in clean energy research and development.”

He said the United States could only pursue offshore drilling as a short-term solution to its energy needs and said US dependence on fossil fuels threatened its security while putting the economy and the environment at risk.

The president has previously supported an expansion of offshore drilling as a way to garner Republican support for the energy bill.

“I understand that we can't end our dependence on fossil fuels overnight. That's why I supported a careful plan of offshore oil production as one part of our overall energy strategy,” he said. “But we can pursue such production only if it's safe, and only if it's used as a short-term solution while we transition to a clean energy economy.”

Obama also pushed his case for a system that would limit greenhouse gas emissions from industry, a key ingredient for the United States in a still elusive global agreement to fight climate change.

“The only way the transition to clean energy will ultimately succeed is if the private sector is fully invested in this future -- if capital comes off the sidelines and the ingenuity of our entrepreneurs is unleashed,” he said.

“And the only way to do that is by finally putting a price on carbon pollution.”

Putting a price on carbon will depend on the bill's movement in the Senate. Democratic Senator John Kerry has been hoping the full Senate would debate and vote on a bill in late June or early July, leaving enough time in September or October to work out a final bill with the House.

An Environmental Protection Agency economic analysis of the bill written by Kerry and independent Senator Joseph Lieberman is expected sometime in June. (Reuters)