- The Washington Times - Friday, April 28, 2006

Republican leaders yesterday proposed giving drivers a $100 tax rebate in the face of record-high gas prices, one element of a broad plan that includes oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Republicans promised swift tax relief and tax incentives to promote the use of hybrid cars at a press conference held hours after Exxon Mobil posted profit figures of $8.4 billion for the first quarter of 2006 — a record for any company in the first three months of the year and a 7 percent increase over last year’s first-quarter profits, which also were a record.

“We are going to be able to say to the hard-hit users of automobiles in our country that we are going to ease their burden … by giving them $100 rebate to help offset the very steep gas prices,” said Sen. Pete V. Domenici, New Mexico Republican and chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Meanwhile yesterday, President Bush called for Congress to give him the power to require tighter fuel-efficiency standards for passenger cars, a call echoed by Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta.

“I encourage them to give me that authority,” Mr. Bush said in a trip to Mississippi. “It’s authority that I use for light trucks. And I intend to use it wisely if Congress would give me that authority.”

In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Mr. Mineta formally asked for legislation that would allow the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard for cars, now set at 27.5 miles per gallon for each manufacturer, to be raised through an administrative process.

Democrats, who mostly oppose drilling in the Arctic, quickly dismissed the Republican congressional package as the “same old, same old,” and said pump prices topping $3 per gallon will be the last straw and cost Republicans their congressional majority.

The Republicans were responding to mounting political pressure from voters who are spending an average of $44 each time they fill a 15-gallon tank.

“What the American consumer is saying is: ‘filling up your gas tank shouldn’t empty your wallet,’” said Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican.

The national average price of a gallon of gas was $2.93 yesterday and hit as high as $3.16 in Manhattan, according to AAA.

“High gas prices are going to be the final nail in the GOP coffin this election year,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, who heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

“Every time drivers fill their cars up, they get a stark reminder how this Republican Congress takes a ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ approach to the oil industry as gas prices set new records,” Mr. Schumer said. “It’s time for the American consumer to have a Congress that works hand in hand with them and not with the oil executives.”

Much of yesterday was consumed with dueling press conferences at which each party blamed the other for pump prices.

Republicans said Democrats have long obstructed an obvious solution — exploring for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska.

“I cannot understand what coherent political philosophy cuts its own country off from oil,” said Sen. Jim Talent, Missouri Republican. “It is time to open up the Arctic.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican, said exploring ANWR is the country’s best opportunity for a long-term source of oil.

“There is nothing unpredictable about a supply of oil on the north coastal plain that could potentially supply a million barrels of oil per day for 30 years,” she said.

Last year, ANWR exploration was stripped from a defense spending bill because of a lack of support. President Clinton vetoed ANWR in his first term, and most Democrats have long opposed it.

Mr. Schumer said that if Democrats win back Congress, they will cut the country’s dependence on foreign oil in half by 2020 and start a “massive” project to develop alternative energy sources.

He also criticized the energy bill passed last year as “helping big oil” and noted that gas prices were $2.22 per gallon when it was signed in June.

“That energy bill was corporate welfare in its worst example,” said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, Illinois Democrat and chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Mr. Emanuel said the energy industry spent $86 million to lobby for the energy bill, which included $14.5 billion in subsidies for oil companies.

The Democrats also dismissed the ANWR element of the Republican plan, saying the majority party was “playing politics.”

“They’ve offered you status quo policies that do not change the course of how we achieve energy independence,” Mr. Emanuel said.

Other notable elements in the eight-point Republican plan are the inclusion of nearly $3 billion to research biofuels and ways to make better-performing hybrid cars, an idea first suggested by Mr. Bush. The plan also would give administration officials the authority to prosecute price gougers.

Mr. Frist said he wants the whole plan attached to the supplemental spending bill for a quick vote.

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