By Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Lawmakers in the House of Representatives who are trying to end the decades-old ban on U.S. crude oil exports said on Thursday they were gaining support after a Democrat joined the Republican-led effort. Representative Henry Cuellar became the first Democrat to sign on to a bill launched in February by Representative Joe Barton, a Republican and fellow Texan.
"If we are able to lift the crude oil ban this is going to open up new markets where Texas businesses can create more jobs at home," said Cuellar, whose district includes the oilfields of Eagle Ford, where much of the U.S. boom in light sweet crude has been taking place over the last half decade.
"I've seen communities, especially the rural communities change, I've seen jobs, economic development," Cuellar told reporters at press conference.
He said he has talked with other Democrats and expects they will come on board if the bill reaches the House floor.
Since Barton unveiled the bill, the number of co-sponsors has risen from about 11 to 23 in the 435-member chamber.
"Henry's the first one, but he's not the last" Democrat that will support the bill, Barton said.
The bill has also gained its first support from Republican leadership: Representative Steve Scalise, the House majority whip, the chamber's No. 3 most senior position.
Congress passed the crude oil export ban in 1975 after the Arab oil embargo led to fears of shortages in global oil markets.
But thanks to the revolution in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and other drilling techniques, the United States is now vying with Russia and Saudi Arabia for the position as the world's top oil producer.
In the Senate, Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican and the chairman of the energy committee, has said she will launch a bill to lift the ban this year, though she has not yet indicated when it will be introduced. [ID:nL1N0XH1T3]
Murkowski is currently trying to add an amendment that would relax the ban to a bill that would allow Congress to review any deal with Iran over its nuclear program. It was not clear whether she can get a vote on the measure in the Senate.
(Reporting by Timothy Gardner, editing by Bruce Wallace and David Gregorio)