- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 23, 2000

The House yesterday overwhelmingly passed legislation allowing President Clinton to restrict aid to countries engaging in oil-price fixing, as Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott filed a bill to suspend the 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal gas tax.

The House measure, passed by a 382-38 vote, requires the administration to produce within 30 days a variety of reports on pricing practices by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Those members found to be engaging in oil-price fixing would be subject to cutbacks in foreign aid and military weapons exports.

The administration is engaged in "tin-cup diplomacy, running around begging OPEC to open their valves … [and] the Clinton-Gore administration is squarely to blame," fumed Majority Whip Tom DeLay, Texas Republican.

Meanwhile, Mr. Lott quietly filed two gasoline-tax bills: one to suspend the 4.3 cent-per-gallon increase that Congress approved in 1993 on the strength of a tie-breaking vote cast by Vice President Al Gore; the other would suspend the entire 18.4-cent federal levy.

Debate over the House bill was fierce, with supporters describing it as a "wake-up call for the administration" on oil policy, and Democrats saying it was "feel-good" legislation that does little to address the problems of soaring oil and gasoline prices.

"The governing principle of this bill is to do nothing. It is a feel-good piece of legislation," said Rep. Barney Frank, Massachusetts Democrat.

Democrats mocked the Republican effort, calling the bill a press release to attempt to take credit for what OPEC might do when it meets Monday to set oil prices. Even so, 187 Democrats joined most Republicans in the final vote on the bill.

"Sometimes people laugh at Congress. This is a day for laughing," declared Rep. Martin Frost, Texas Democrat, who accused the Republican majority of pushing "meaningless" legislation.

The president already has the power to cut off assistance to countries conspiring in price fixing, but Republicans said the largely symbolic measure was needed to put pressure on the administration and OPEC leaders to increase oil production.

White House spokesman Andrew Dorton said the House measure would be "unhelpful" in their efforts to boost oil production.

Rhetoric was also heated in the Senate yesterday, as Republicans called dependence on foreign oil a threat to national security.

Mr. Lott, Mississippi Republican, said President Clinton has been aware of the danger since a 1994 report was issued by then-Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown. The report stated that "the nation's growing reliance on imports of crude oil and refined petroleum products threatens the nation's security because of the increased U.S. vulnerability to oil-supply interruptions."

Mr. Clinton in 1994 said he concurred with the report's findings, but he has not taken action.

Mr. Lott and other Senate leaders sent a letter to Mr. Clinton Tuesday reminding him of their request in the spring of last year for another review and investigation by the Commerce Department into the impact of increasing oil imports on national security.

Republicans say that second report has been sitting on Mr. Clinton's desk since November.

Thus, an oil-price rise should not have come as a surprise to anyone in the administration, said the senators, including Frank H. Murkowski of Alaska, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee; Jesse Helms of North Carolina, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee; and John W. Warner of Virginia, chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

"When I hear they were caught by surprise or caught napping, I can only assume they haven't been reading their mail or moving reports," Mr. Murkowski said. "Or they decided they didn't want to bring the issue up before the American people."

A White House spokesman said the administration was taking a responsible approach, given the dramatic changes in oil prices, by carefully reviewing the report before releasing it.

He also said the president's energy plan outlined in last Saturday's weekly radio address included a tax package to promote energy security, new initiatives for renewable energy, and tax credits for domestic oil producers to reduce foreign reliance on oil. The president has also included $1.4 billion in the budget to promote energy security.

"Republicans should also take a more responsible approach and get down to work passing the president's proposals on energy," the spokesman said.

Sen. Craig Thomas, Wyoming Republican, said, "One reason we are in such a bind and experiencing this oil crisis is because this administration has not had a plan or policy, and this has made us particularly vulnerable to the manipulation of the oil market by oil nations."

In their letter to Mr. Clinton, the senators asked him to take "seriously the threat to our nation imposed by the increasing importation of basic energy."

"We cannot remain the world's only superpower while sliding further and further down the slope of increased dependency upon others for the energy which powers our nation, safeguards our future, and provides assurance to our friends and allies," the letter said.

Oil production in the United States is down 17 percent since 1992, while consumption is up 14 percent, said a Senate Energy and Natural Resources staffer. The Department of Energy predicts that by 2020, 65 percent of all oil used in the United States will be imported.

The price of crude oil has risen from $12 a barrel in February 1999 to $29 a barrel last month and has moved as high as $34 a barrel. Gasoline prices are reaching $1.60 a gallon locally, and industry officials warned the price could go as high as $2 a gallon this summer.

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