- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 15, 2000

House Republican leaders are backing away from proposals to repeal the "Gore gas tax," some because they want to keep funding for pet highway projects, others because they want to let the vice president take the blame for higher gas prices.
Only a week after Republicans began to target the 4.3-cent-per-gallon federal gas tax for elimination, House Majority Leader Dick Armey yesterday downplayed its repeal as "scant relief."
"Even if we repeal it, it gives little relief to the consumer," Mr. Armey, of Texas, told reporters.
Reps. Bud Shuster of Pennsylvania and James L. Oberstar of Minnesota, the chairman and top Democrat, respectively, on the Transportation Committee, wrote to their colleagues yesterday saying the gas and diesel tax provides $7.2 billion for highways every year and loss of that revenue would have a "devastating impact" on construction and safety.
"Many road improvement projects would have to be put on hold. Programs to fight drunk driving, encourage seat belt use, and hire truck safety inspectors would also have to be cut," they wrote, adding that there is no guarantee the tax cut would result in lower prices at the pump.
But some Republican aides are saying the issue is a win for congressional Republicans no matter what the outcome of the proposed repeal. Either Congress overturns a tax supported by Vice President Al Gore during his presidential bid, or the issue will drag on as Mr. Gore continues to take political heat for the crisis.
Mr. Gore cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate in 1993 to approve the gas tax as a deficit-reduction measure. The gas-tax increase originally was used to reduce the deficit, then was shifted by Congress in 1997 into the Highway Trust Fund, which pays for road projects throughout the United States.
The repeal would reduce the trust fund by $5 billion per year, from $30 billion to $25 billion.
Gore campaign spokesman Doug Hattaway yesterday said Republicans should stop making "political hay" out of rising gas prices and work for solutions.
The issue is set to make headlines again in Washington as independent truckers return tomorrow to protest at the Capitol about high fuel prices. But their top priorities are getting the U.S. government to press harder on the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to increase supply, to oversee freight rates to ensure they are fair, and to release fuel from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said yesterday the administration is considering repeal of the gas tax. Fuel prices are up about 55 cents per gallon from one year ago.
OPEC meets March 27 in Vienna, Austria, to discuss whether to increase production of oil, with prices near a nine-year high.
"I think OPEC will increase production," Mr. Richardson told Bloomberg News yesterday.
Mr. Armey's criticism of the administration's diplomatic efforts with oil-producing nations sounded very much like that of Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush. The Texas governor this week attacked Mr. Gore, his Democratic opponent, for failing to get more favorable treatment from oil-rich Middle East countries since the United States drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait in 1991.
"I look back in the last decade where we were in the Middle East, saving these people from tyranny, and we bailed out Mexico just a few years ago, and it seems like our diplomatic relationships and our diplomatic standing with these OPEC countries is not what it ought to be," Mr. Armey said yesterday.
He took aim at the Clinton administration, saying it lacks an energy policy.
"Let's not get bogged down on only one dimension of a problem. Let's look at the larger, long-term problem of U.S. dependency on foreign supplies, failed diplomatic relationships with critical producing nations and our own inability to fully develop our own domestic reserves," Mr. Armey said.
"We're 56 percent dependent on foreign supplies now," Mr. Armey said. "That's worse than it was in the '70s. In the long run, that's where we'll get the relief for our own consumers."
Two road-building lobbies, the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) and the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, want to keep the tax. The former group gave $724,000 to Republican candidates in the 1998 election cycle out of a total of $776,000 in political action committee donations.
"It is not good public policy to consider reducing or eliminating the federal motor fuel taxes at a time when every community around the country is facing a huge backlog of road improvement needs that will save time and increase motor safety," said Stephen Sandherr, AGC executive vice president and CEO.
But Rep. Richard W. Pombo, California Republican who is sponsoring a bill to repeal the gas tax, said the legislation now has about 20 co-sponsors and "a lot of folks across the country are in favor of it."
"People are looking for some relief," Mr. Pombo said. "If gas prices continue to climb, Washington will react to that."
Other Republicans still support repeal of the tax.
"Our general decision this year on every issue you fill in the blank is do the right thing, not the expedient thing. I hope we do the right thing, and that is to repeal the tax," said Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Maryland Republican.
Sean Scully contributed to this article.

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