Friday, April 21, 2006

SAN JOSE, Calif. — President Bush yesterday said rising gas prices are like a “tax” on families and told Californians, who are paying among the highest prices, he will go after any reports of gouging.

“I know the folks here are suffering at the gas pump,” Mr. Bush said during his first stop on a four-day trip to California. “Rising gasoline prices is like a tax, particularly on the working people and the small-business people.”

As prices hit $75 a barrel for crude oil, the White House said there should be “a sense of urgency within Congress” to work on the president’s energy independence initiative.

Press secretary Scott McClellan said the administration is looking for ways to help in the short term, but said the issue is really the long-term problem of dependence on foreign oil.

Today, Mr. Bush will visit the California Fuel Cell Partnership to highlight alternatives to gasoline-powered cars.

The president flew to California yesterday with some good news for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, his fellow Republican who is seeking re-election this year.

Hours before he was scheduled to meet Mr. Schwarzenegger at the airport, Mr. Bush agreed to have the Army Corps of Engineers rebuild levees that the governor this week accused the federal government of ignoring. But Mr. Bush did not agree to declare a pre-emptive disaster, as Mr. Schwarzenegger had sought.

“The president directed his Cabinet team and chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality to make sure that the repairs happen as quickly as possible,” Mr. McClellan said.

The governor’s press secretary called it “a step in the right direction” but said state officials will continue to demand the federal government move quickly.

Mr. Schwarzenegger already has declared a state disaster, and said this week that the administration was “dangerously wrong” about the state of the levees and that California could face a disaster worse than the New Orleans flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina.

In a state where Mr. Bush scores a positive approval rating from just one-third of the electorate, Mr. Schwarzenegger must walk a careful line in taking a hard line without alienating the president.

The governor greeted Mr. Bush with arms spread open as the president came down the stairs from Air Force One, and the two men talked in Mr. Bush’s limousine on the way from the airport to Cisco Systems Inc., where they took part in a panel on the president’s competitiveness initiative.

During the public discussion at Cisco, Mr. Bush gave Mr. Schwarzenegger, arguably the nation’s second-ranking Republican chief executive, a curious but heartfelt endorsement, seeming to search for words to describe the body builder-turned-actor-turned-politician.

“He is a — he is a really — an interesting man,” Mr. Bush said, drawing laughter from the audience of Cisco employees and community leaders. “He didn’t have to run for office but chose to do so, and I admire that in you.”

The president was scheduled to meet with fellows from the Hoover Institution and have dinner last night at the home of former Secretary of State George P. Schultz, who served for more than six years in President Reagan’s administration.

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