Monday, April 2, 2007

A gallon of gas costs an average of $2.68 nationally and is rising — about the same price as last spring when Democrats on the campaign trail vowed to swiftly ease the pain at the pump if elected.

The Democrats went on to win control of Congress, and the House quickly passed a bill to roll back oil subsidies, a measure leaders trumpeted as “a first step toward a future of energy independence.” But months may pass before the Senate considers the bill, and analysts predict gas prices could hit $3 per gallon by summer.

“You have feel-good legislation, but at the end of the day it doesn’t really alleviate the burden or change anything right away,” said John Townsend, manager of public and government affairs at AAA.

Mr. Townsend said: “Much of what is going on is beyond the control of Congress.”

Still, Democratic leaders say their measure can help consumers. The Creating Long-Term Energy Alternatives for the Nation (CLEAN) Act rolls back $14 billion in oil subsidies for some of the largest energy companies, and the money saved would be used to stimulate research and development of alternative energy and fuels.

“We’ve allowed Exxon’s bottom line to take priority over families struggling at the gas pump and the harmful effects of global warming,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, criticizing Republicans who controlled Congress as favoring oil executives over the public and promising change with new leadership. Mr. Reid made that remark in January when introducing his chamber’s version of the bill, to be considered some time this year.

Just as the Democrats jumped on pump prices last spring, the Republicans see a political opportunity. If prices hit $3 per gallon, it will be easy to say to the American people that Democratic efforts to stymie global warming will only make it worse, a Republican leadership aide speculated.

“It’s a great rhetorical point for every party, but to the average voter, this all just sounds like political back-and-forth,” said Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Mr. Cole said no Republicans lost seats last fall solely because of gas prices, and opined that voters “sense there are certain things beyond Congress’ reach.”

Democratic leaders insist that if voters are patient, they will see results on energy and other issues.

“We will not rest on our laurels,” said Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel of Illinois. “When it comes to being a new direction, we are just getting warmed up.”

Democratic aides say leaders are still working out whether they will bring by July 4 a package of bills dealing with climate change to the floor or whether they will push pieces of legislation one at a time.

Mr. Townsend contends the Democrats’ “CLEAN” bill, which passed the House 264-163, would have little impact because high gas prices are not the cause of record oil-company profits. He said that pump prices have nothing to do with political leaders or their bills.

Last week, oil was at nearly $65 per barrel and tensions in the Middle East threatened to send it higher.

According to AAA data, last week was the eighth consecutive week that gas prices increased, for an overall 21 percent rise in that period. Mr. Townsend said that when the summer driving season begins on Memorial Day weekend, prices could skyrocket.

“We know that $3 gas is going to be a clear and present danger on the West Coast, the question is whether $3 gas will hit the East Coast,” he said.

“By investing in American ingenuity, Democrats will accelerate the implementation of existing clean, energy-efficient technologies,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said Jan. 18, when her chamber passed the bill.

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