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Going a Short Way to Make a Point

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, April 27, 2006

Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.

Gas prices have gone above $3 a gallon again, and that means it's time for another round of congressional finger-pointing.

"Since George Bush and Dick Cheney took over as president and vice president, gas prices have doubled!" charged Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), standing at an Exxon station on Capitol Hill where regular unleaded hit $3.10. "They are too cozy with the oil industry."

She then hopped in a waiting Chrysler LHS (18 mpg) -- even though her Senate office was only a block away.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) used a Hyundai Elantra to take the one-block journey to and from the gas-station news conference. He posed in front of the fuel prices and gave them a thumbs-down. "Get tough on big oil!" he demanded of the Bush administration.

By comparison, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) was a model of conservation. She told a staffer idling in a Jetta to leave without her, then ducked into a sushi restaurant for lunch before making the journey back to work.

At about the same time, House Republicans were meeting in the Capitol for their weekly caucus (Topic A: gas). The House driveway was jammed with cars, many idling, including eight Chevrolet Suburbans (14 mpg).

America may be addicted to oil, as President Bush puts it. But America is in the denial phase of this addiction -- as evidenced by the behavior of its lawmakers. They have proposed all kinds of solutions to high gas prices: taxes on oil companies, domestic oil drilling and releasing petroleum reserves. But they ignore the obvious: that Americans drive too much in too-big cars.

Senators were debating a war spending bill yesterday, but the subject invariably turned to gas prices. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) engaged his deputy, Dick Durbin (Ill.), in a riveting colloquy. "Is the senator aware that the L.A. Times headline reads today, 'Bush's Proposals Viewed as a Drop in the Bucket'?"

"I'm aware of that," Durbin replied.

Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) responded with an economics lesson. "Oil is worth what people pay for it," he argued.

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) sounded the alarms. "We are one accident or one terrorist attack away from oil at $100 a barrel!"

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) made a plea for conservation. "We have to move quickly to increase our fuel efficiency," she urged.

But not too quickly. After lunchtime votes, senators emerged from the Capitol for the drive across the street to their offices.

Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) hopped in a GMC Yukon (14 mpg). Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) climbed aboard a Nissan Pathfinder (15). Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) stepped into an eight-cylinder Ford Explorer (14). Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) disappeared into a Lincoln Town Car (17). Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) met up with an idling Chrysler minivan (18).

Next came Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), greeted by a Ford Explorer XLT. On the Senate floor Tuesday, Menendez had complained that Bush "remains opposed to higher fuel-efficiency standards."

Also waiting: three Suburbans, a Nissan Armada V8, two Cadillacs and a Lexus. The greenest senator was Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), who was picked up by his hybrid Toyota Prius (60 mpg), at quadruple the fuel efficiency of his Indiana counterpart Evan Bayh (D), who was met by a Dodge Durango V8 (14).

As a political matter, Democrats clearly sense that they have the advantage on the high gas prices, judging from the number of speeches and news conferences. "The cost of Republican corruption when it comes to energy is hitting home very clearly for America's middle class," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) exulted yesterday morning.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) introduced an amendment to repeal oil-company tax breaks and distribute $500 tax rebates to consumers. It was quickly ruled out of order.

But Republicans were clearly feeling defensive. "We passed an energy bill last year, last July," House Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.) pleaded at a morning news conference. "It changes CAFE [corporate average fuel economy] standards. It changes some of the things that we can do -- I'm sorry, changes not the CAFE standards, but changes some of the supply issues, boutique fuels, all these things."

Only Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.), who can speak freely because he is retiring, was willing to note the disconnect between rhetoric and action. "People say, understandably, 'Solve our energy problems right now, but don't make us do anything differently,' " he said on the Senate floor.

If the politics of gasoline favor Democrats at the moment, the insincerity is universal. A surreptitious look at the cars in the senators-only spots inside and outside the Senate office buildings found an Escort and a Sentra (super-rich Wisconsin Democrat Herb Kohl's spot had a Chevy Lumina), but far more Jaguars, Cadillacs and Lexuses and a fleet of SUVs made by Ford, Honda, BMW and Lexus.

A sampling of senators' and staff cars parked along Delaware Avenue NE found that those displaying Democratic campaign bumper stickers had a somewhat higher average fuel economy (23 mpg) than those displaying GOP stickers (18 mpg). A fuel-efficiency rating could not be found for the 1970s-era Volkswagen "Thing" owned by Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.).

Maybe, lawmakers are starting to learn. When GOP senators had a lunch Tuesday a couple of blocks from the Capitol, many took cars. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) emerged from the lunch looking for his ride when he spied The Washington Post's Shailagh Murray. Reconsidering, he set out on foot. "I need the exercise," he reasoned.

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