Democrats on Capitol Hill slammed the Bush administration yesterday over the escalating cost of gasoline as Republican leaders asked the White House to investigate charges of price gouging by the major oil companies.
"The same Bush administration that so tragically bungled the response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita has now bungled its way to $3-per-gallon gasoline," Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, said yesterday. "Now it's clear to anyone who fills up at a gas pump that this administration is also failing in its approach to energy."
Though more respectful, yesterday's letter to President Bush from top Republican leaders in Congress suggested a similarly sour assessment of the administration's handling of the issue.
"[W]e believe that federal law enforcement agencies and regulators should take every available step to ensure that all federal laws protecting American consumers from price fixing, collusion, gouging and other anti-competitive practices are vigorously enforced," House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist advised Mr. Bush in their letter, which included a host of requests for investigations that the administration could pursue.
"Given the severity of the current situation regarding gas prices, we believe that the attorney general and the Federal Trade Commission should devote all necessary resources to expedited review of complaints of price gouging against wholesalers or retailers of gasoline and other distillates," the two top Republicans wrote.
President Bush said yesterday that his administration is actively watching the oil companies.
"I know gas prices are high," he told a crowd in Las Vegas. "We'll make sure that the energy companies are pricing their product fairly."
Last night, White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters aboard Air Force One that Mr. Bush has asked his Energy and Justice departments to begin probing whether cheating has happened in the gasoline markets. The spokesman said Mr. Bush also will order federal officials to send a letter to all 50 state attorneys general that will offer federal help in price-gouging probes while reminding them that they have primary authority over such investigations.
The president will announce the actions at a speech today in Washington, Mr. McClellan said. "I think you'll hear the president say very clearly that he will not tolerate price gouging," he said.
Criticism of Mr. Bush's handling of energy issues comes less than a year after Congress passed energy legislation that failed to significantly increase supplies or lower prices. In fact, provisions of the bill requiring a switch to ethanol to meet clean-fuel requirements in the summer have been blamed, in part, for this spring's spike in gas prices.
Oil companies had warned that shortages might develop if Congress mandated the switch to ethanol at the same time refiners were gearing up for their usual switch to summer fuel blends around Memorial Day. Now, gas stations are racing to meet Congress' May 6 deadline for the switch.
Democrats on Capitol Hill made clear their plans to make a political issue out of the escalating prices. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California will hold a press conference today to call on the administration to "stop price gouging."
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said the price of gasoline has risen 100 percent since Mr. Bush first was elected.
He said the cost is made all the more painful by news stories of a $400 million "golden parachute" for an energy industry executive.
"I'm all for Americans having retirement security, but does anyone think it's fair to have consumers pay $100 a week to fill their fuel tanks and the big energy bosses fill their bank tanks with hundreds of millions of dollars?" Mr. Reid said.
Republicans said that if Democrats are so concerned about cheap fuel, then they should vote to expand domestic drilling for oil.
"Refusing to explore, drill or invest in new energy sources, while raising taxes at the pump, has not and will not help American families fill their tanks or their pocketbooks," said Tracey Schmitt, press secretary of the Republican National Committee.
Patrice Hill contributed to this report.