As C-Note Falls Flat, GOP Looks for Plan B on Gas

Senate Republicans, from left, James M. Talent, Pete V. Domenici, Bill Frist and Rick Santorum attend a news conference last week on a $100 rebate for consumers.
Senate Republicans, from left, James M. Talent, Pete V. Domenici, Bill Frist and Rick Santorum attend a news conference last week on a $100 rebate for consumers. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Shailagh Murray and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Some Republicans thought they were being clever indeed with their plan to respond to soaring gasoline prices by giving most drivers a $100 rebate. At a news conference last week to unveil the idea, Sen. James M. Talent (R-Mo.) declared, "It will show people that Washington gets it."

Many voters, however, concluded that Washington does not get it. Besieged with complaints about political pandering, GOP lawmakers now say the rebate idea is a non-starter. As Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) explained yesterday, "When my own daughter harasses me, you know you're in trouble."

Republicans on Capitol Hill and at the White House are well aware that $3-per-gallon gas spells trouble. But as the fumbling over the rebate showed, they are not at all clear what, if anything, they can or should do about it.

The response so far has been profiles in panic. Some conservatives dropped their philosophical opposition to tax hikes and business regulations and began complaining loudly about oil companies and the auto industry.

President Bush last week announced that he wanted the authority to raise fuel economy standards on automobiles. One aide acknowledged the idea was devised on the fly, with almost no planning or discussion among relevant agencies. This became obvious within hours when White House officials cautioned that Bush had no immediate plan to use the authority even if he had it.

A few days earlier, Bush backed diverting crude oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, an idea he dismissed less than two years earlier as a political stunt.

Republican lawmakers likewise have responded with a mishmash of solutions -- some barely vetted, others with little chance of becoming law.

They proposed an accounting-rule change that would have amounted to a tax increase on any company that maintains an inventory, including oil firms. Then they dropped it after business supporters yelped. House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) yesterday called the idea "stupid."

Democrats, likewise, have joined in the bazaar of proposals for dealing with high-priced gas. In this case, though, proposals to investigate oil companies or tax their profits are in general more consistent with the party's pro-regulation philosophy.

The new anti-business attitude among Republicans hit such fevered pitch that it prompted the conservative Wall Street Journal opinion page to denounce the party's election-year "desperation" under editorials titled "Congress Gone Wild" and "Denny Pelosi," a swipe that linked conservative House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) with liberal House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Winging it during a crisis is not a new phenomenon. In an election year in particular, political leaders often respond to short-term emergencies with proposals they privately admit have dubious merit.

The calculation is that it is better to appear empathetic and responsive than to lose an election. Gas prices are setting records, and polls show voters are anxious and angry with Bush and Congress.

In truth, there is bipartisan agreement that there is little Washington can do to lower gas prices in the short-term. Tax rebates are expensive and difficult to implement because the money is dedicated to a trust fund for highway repair. The other options may take months, if not years or decades, to affect the price of gasoline, which is largely controlled by supply and demand. Right now, demand is soaring and the supply is not.

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