- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 16, 2000

A House committee, frustrated by the Clinton administration's inability to deal with allies in the Middle East, passed legislation yesterday that would cut U.S. assistance or arms sales to countries engaging in oil price fixing.
Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman, New York Republican and committee chairman, said he hoped the bill would "galvanize" the White House to take a tougher stand with members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and get serious about an energy policy.
"As oil prices mount and our elderly constituents and business people have struggled to pay their energy bills, we've been waiting in vain to see an administration strategy on energy take shape," Mr. Gilman said. "This approach to the energy crisis, and to OPEC in particular, is long overdue."
Most members of the House International Relations Committee agreed the bill, which now heads for a floor vote, would have no immediate impact on prices. But the issue has begun to spill over from the gas pump to the presidential campaign.
And today, the issue will spill onto the region's roads as hundreds of independent truckers come to Washington for a demonstration on the Hill against rising diesel prices. Capitol Police expect 600 trucks, but organizers have obtained permits for up to 2,500 demonstrators at two sites.
Only five trucks will be allowed on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. The rest of the vehicles will be parked at various locations surrounding the Capitol.
The trucks will arrive some during morning rush hour from the north and south along Interstate 95, then take Interstate 395 and the Beltway to Route 50 into the city. Organizers have a permit that extends from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., which means some truckers could depart at the height of evening rush hour.
Before yesterday's committee vote, the Clinton administration got a bipartisan scolding in Congress for failing to persuade oil-producing nations saved by the United States in the Persian Gulf war from raising oil prices for American consumers.
"That is not the way you thank the United States," said Rep. Donald Manzullo, Illinois Republican. "American blood was shed to protect Saudi Arabia and Kuwait from being overrun [by Iraq]."
Rep. Brad Sherman, California Democrat, said with disgust, "We defended them and we got no guarantees that they wouldn't wage war against the American motorist."
House Republican leaders continued to skewer Vice President Al Gore, who cast the tie-breaking vote in 1993 to approve a 4.3-cent-per-gallon increase to the federal gas tax. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, and Conference Chairman J.C. Watts of Oklahoma held a news conference yesterday about the "Clinton-Gore Gas Crisis" at an Exxon station on Capitol Hill, where one gallon of unleaded regular was selling for $1.79.
Republicans are also circulating "talking points" to highlight Mr. Gore's vulnerability on the energy issue. They state that U.S. oil production is down 17 percent since 1992, and that the number of working U.S. oil rigs has dropped from 657 in 1990 to 153 this year.
Mr. Gore told PBS interviewer Jim Lehrer he was "very, very proud" of his vote, which was part of a deficit-reduction package. But revenue from the tax was shifted in 1997 into the Highway Trust Fund, which pays for road projects throughout the United States.
"That vote was a tie-breaking vote … by which we got rid of the Bush-Quayle economic catastrophe and put in place the economic recovery plan that has caused the strongest economy in the history of the United States," Mr. Gore said.
He added that the gas crisis is a problem "for the people who have to buy the gasoline."
Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the likely Republican presidential nominee, has criticized Mr. Gore for failing to exert clout with Middle East countries after the Gulf war. The governor's father, President Bush, was commander in chief during Operation Desert Storm.
The bill, approved overwhelmingly by the House panel yesterday on a voice vote, notes that OPEC has cut oil production by 4 million barrels a day since March 1999, driving prices from $11 per barrel to $32. The legislation states that the resulting rise in diesel-fuel prices has put tens of thousands of trucking companies in the Northeast "on the verge of bankruptcy."
The measure would allow the president to reduce or end assistance under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 and the Arms Export Control Act to any nation determined to have engaged in oil price fixing. Such action would not be mandatory.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican, said oil-producing nations that have a close military relationship with the United States should not get away with taking advantage of the United States in terms of oil prices.
"We're telling people, 'You're not going to rely on us if you're involved in an international price-fixing conspiracy,' " Mr. Rohrabacher said.
Meanwhile, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said fuel prices are going to increase and likely won't peak until summer begins, even if oil producers increase production.
Mr. Richardson yesterday also rejected Republican suggestions that the Clinton administration reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil by opening up environmentally sensitive areas of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), and the coastal zones off Florida and California, to new oil drilling.
But Mr. Richardson said the administration is seeking additional funding for the development of alternative fuels, and energy from windmills.
Republicans, who said constituents are demanding that Congress do something about escalating pump prices, said they weren't happy with how Mr. Richardson is dealing with the problem.
"No drilling on ANWR, no drilling on either coast, and the answer is more wind that is what I heard," said Rep. Charles H. Taylor, North Carolina Republican.

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