- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 28, 2000

Soaring gasoline prices have suddenly become the hot issue of the 2000 elections, throwing Vice President Al Gore and the Democrats on the defensive and giving Texas Gov. George W. Bush and the Republicans new political ammunition to use against them.

With gasoline prices topping $2 per gallon in campaign battleground states in the Midwest, the Bush campaign stepped up its attacks yesterday against Mr. Gore for his role in pushing administration policies that have raised gasoline taxes while the United States has grown more dependent on foreign oil.

In an attempt to blunt the political attacks against him on the issue, Mr. Gore proposed a $75 billion package of tax incentives yesterday to conserve fuel and curb pollution.

But the Bush campaign immediately attacked his plan as nothing more than a political document that would not give motorists any relief from rising gas prices.

"Today's proposals are more about Al Gore trying to avoid a political price because consumers are paying more at the pump than it is about reducing gas prices," said Scott McClellan, a Bush campaign spokesman.

"Even the Clinton administration's energy secretary, Bill Richardson, said the administration was 'caught napping' while there was a drastic increase in gas prices under their administration," Mr. McClellan said.

"Our dependence on foreign oil under this administration has gone from 50 percent in 1992 to 56 percent this year," he said.

Mr. Bush has been having a field day quoting from Mr. Gore's book on the environment, "Earth in The Balance," in which the vice president urged "higher taxes on fossil fuels" as "one of the logical first steps in changing our policies" on the environment.

The vice president is especially vulnerable on the issue of higher gasoline taxes because he cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate in 1993 for a budget plan that raised the federal tax at the pump by another 4.3 cents per gallon.

Meanwhile, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican, introduced a bill Monday that would suspend the entire 18.4-cent-a-gallon federal gas tax until Labor Day to give beleaguered motorists a price break until oil prices come down.

Mrs. Hutchison will be joined by several Republican senators today at a news conference in the Capitol to promote the bill and to attack the administration for policies that she says have made America even more dependent upon foreign oil.

"There's a lot of Republican rank and file and leadership interest in raising the profile of this issue and seeing what legislative remedies there are," said a Senate Republican official. "The problem is how to get to a vote on something that we can send to the president."

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde will also hold hearings on the issue today, with witnesses from the Energy Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the oil industry.

"There's a lot of interest among our members on this," said John Feehery, press secretary for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican.

"A lot of members have expressed themselves on this issue. There is support in the House for suspending the gas tax. People are talking about it," Mr. Feehery said.

With polls showing substantial support among voters for suspending or at least cutting the gasoline tax, the problem is also becoming a dominant issue in some Senate races as well.

In Michigan, Sen. Spencer Abraham, a Republican, is attacking his Democratic opponent, Rep. Debbie Stabenow, for supporting the administration's energy policies.

After Mr. Abraham held a well-attended hearing last Friday on gasoline prices in Warren, Mich., in the heart of Macomb County, Mrs. Stabenow's campaign manager said that she had called for a suspension of the gasoline tax earlier this year. But a top aide to Mr. Abraham said yesterday, "I've never seen it."

"It's a hot-button issue in Michigan right now. Everybody's talking about it," said Joe Davis, a spokesman for Mr. Abraham.

Michigan, the home of the nation's automotive industry, is a pivotal state in this year's presidential contest.

And political strategists there say Mr. Gore is having an especially hard time because of rising gasoline prices and a statement he made in his book that the automobile's "cumulative impact on the global environment is posing a mortal threat to the security of every nation that is more deadly than that of any military enemy we are ever again likely to confront."

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