Senate GOP Floats Gas-Rebate Plan

Senate Republicans propose a $100 rebate check for millions of taxpayers Thursday to counter high gasoline costs, but linked the assistance to drilling in an Alaska wildlife refuge, thus assuring the measure would face stiff opposition from most Democrats.

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As gas prices rise, so does the heat on Capitol Hill. Republican lawmakers unveiled what they called a bold package to ease the pain of high gas prices across the nation. Democrats belittled that plan, and said tax breaks for oil companies should be rescinded.

NPR's David Welna is at the Capitol

DAVID WELNA reporting:

After having narrowly pushed through a huge energy bill last year, with nearly $15 billion in tax breaks for the oil industry, Republicans understandably were a bit on the defensive today about the huge profits oil companies have reaped in the past few months. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist led a group of fellow GOP Senators, most of them facing tough reelection battles, to an outdoor news conference across the street from the Capitol this afternoon. It was to unveil what Frist called a bold package for American gasoline consumers.

Senator BILL FRIST (Republican, Tennessee): A plan that would give taxpayers a $100 gas tax holiday rebate check to help ease the pain that they're feeling at that pump.

WELNA: Under that plan, individuals earning up to $125,000 a year and couples earning up to $150,000 a year would be eligible for the $100 check. The measure would have to first be attached to an emergency war spending bill being debated in the Senate. Frist insisted it's not the time for rhetoric or political games, as mid-term elections draw near. He then introduced Missouri Republican Jim Talent, who faces a tough reelection bid and who did not shy away from playing up the GOP gas relief.

Senator JIM TALENT (Republican, Missouri): The $100 a person rebate will be very welcome back home in Missouri and I'm sure all over the country. It will show people that Washington gets it and that it's time to provide some relief to Americans, to Missourians, who are trying to support their families and are paying these very high gasoline prices.

WELNA: After a colleague recalled President Bush telling the nation it's addicted to oil in his State of the Union address, Majority Leader Frist was asked whether the $100 might be subsidizing that addiction. Frist, who's an M.D., replied with a medical metaphor.

Senator FRIST: It is a short-term, important Band-Aid to a wound that is bleeding and that is beginning to hemorrhage.

WELNA: There was also a fair amount of finger-pointing at Democrats for the high gas prices, led by a Pennsylvania Republican and endangered incumbent Rick Santorum.

Senator RICK SANTORUM (Republican, Pennsylvania): Those who stand up and criticize for high gas prices and suggest that somehow or another that the blame is upon those of us who have been pushing for increased supply of energy in this country, I think they need to look in the mirror.

WELNA: Democrats quickly responded to those gas attacks at a news conference held at their party's Capitol Hill headquarters. Here's New York's Charles Schumer, who leads the effort to win Senate elections this year.

Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): We all know why Senator Frist and Speaker Hastert are issuing this plan today. They're running scared. But they don't change the fundamental makeup of why the prices are so high.

WELNA: Illinois Congressman Rahm Emanuel, who is leading the effort to elect House Democrats this year, blamed the energy bill passed last year by GOP majorities.

Representative RAHM EMANUEL (Democrat, Illinois): They do not want to change the course because, trust me, $86 million is a lot of money spent on lobbying. And the results are in. They produced a bill. I didn't. They did.

WELNA: And Schumer had his own political proposal for bringing down gas prices.

Senator SCHUMER: If Democrats are elected and carry the majority in the House and Senate, you'll see a whole new change on energy policies. We will reduce our dependence on foreign oil. We will cut it in half by the year 2020, and we will engage in a massive program, a Manhattan Project, to deal with energy alternatives.

WELNA: And with the new NBC News poll showing only 22% of Americans approving Congress right now, Democrats are hoping high gas prices will mean a high political price for the Republican majority this November.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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