- The Washington Times - Monday, July 3, 2000

House Majority Leader Dick Armey says he believes the House would be willing to suspend the 18.3-cents-a-gallon federal gasoline tax to give motorists some temporary relief from skyrocketing gas prices.
"We can do that. And we must also replenish the highway construction funds that it would deny us. That could be done," the Texas Republican said yesterday on "Fox News Sunday."
Mr. Armey made his comments when asked why the Republican leadership has not gotten behind efforts by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, another Texas Republican, to suspend the federal gas tax during the high-driving summer months to ease some of the pain motorists are currently feeling at the pumps.
"I think the House is willing to do that … but we want to do it correctly," the House leader said. "The first thing you have to answer is how do you replenish the highway construction funds. We fought so hard for those after years of neglect of the nation's roads. And if we can work out that riddle, I think we'll be able to do that. It will be a good thing to do."
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who is reworking a bill the Senate defeated in April that would have suspended the 18.3-cents-a gallon gas tax if gas prices reached $2 a gallon, says his measure would be funded from the surplus, not the highway construction fund.
A spokeswoman for Mrs. Hutchison said yesterday, "Her bill also would hold the highway construction fund harmless."
When asked initially about the Hutchison proposal, Mr. Armey did not sound overly enthusiastic. "We can do that. But that's a temporary measure for temporary reductions," he said on Fox television.
Fox's Bill O'Reilly reminded the Republican leader there are "people who are now spending $60 for every fill-up." Given such horror stories, Mr. O'Reilly said, "I think everybody would take that … temporary reduction."
"Well, I think they would," said Mr. Armey.
The price of gas is averaging about $1.70 a gallon nationally, compared with $1.15 a gallon at this time last year.
Mr. Lott has said the Senate will vote on a gas tax rollback measure after it returns from its current recess next week.
"I personally would like to eliminate the or at least suspend for the rest of this year the 18.3-cent-a-gallon federal gas tax till we can find a way to get a national energy policy and get the price of gasoline down," the Mississippi Republican said at a news conference Friday.
In April, Mr. Lott tried to cut the federal gas tax by 4.3 cents a gallon. His measure also called for suspending the entire 18.3-cents tax if gas prices reached an average of $2 a gallon.
That bill was killed by intense lobbying by the road-building industry, which warned that the cut would threaten 250,000 jobs in federal and state highway projects and undermine programs designed to decrease car crashes.
The Highway Trust Fund would not have been adversely impacted by his bill, Mr. Lott said. "But some people thought, well, the language doesn't guarantee that it won't come out of the Highway Trust Fund."
As the Senate plans to reconsider a gas tax suspension, the Senate's top Republican said he's going to modify the language in his bill to make it clear the Highway Trust Fund would not be raided.
But it won't be easy to convince some lawmakers of that. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle warned last week that any new attempt at suspending the gas tax would be futile. "To jeopardize meaningful highway construction is not the solution," the South Dakota Democrat said.
In his radio address Saturday, President Clinton accused the Republican-run Congress of "drilling holes" in progress being made to improve energy efficiency and lower gasoline prices over the long haul.
Mr. Armey charged yesterday that if Vice President Al Gore is elected president, Americans "would be permanently" paying the high prices they are now paying for gas and prices that are "even higher."
He said Mr. Gore advocates the "elimination of the internal combustion engine" to protect the environment. Mr. Gore called for that policy in his 1992 book "Earth in the Balance."
Mr. Armey said the vice president has "ignored" the option of "building natural gas lines so people in the Northeast can be heating with good, clean, reliable, inexpensive natural gas" rather than costly oil.
"Let's have a foreign policy that allows us to get some respect out of the OPEC nations that we deserve and we fought for, by the way and then let's reduce our domestic dependence on foreign oil," the Texas Republican said.
"Al Gore has ignored all of those things, and all of those things are things we can do if we get a responsible president who has a long-run view of America's energy needs," Mr. Armey said.

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