When it comes to gasoline prices, President Bush and Congress are talking past each other. The president says the solution is to boost U.S. oil production and refinery capacity. Congressional Democrats say it's time to tax big oil's windfall profits and suspend filling the strategic petroleum reserve.
They are talking the talk in Washington about record-high gas prices. Both members of Congress and President Bush showed concern about that topic today.
But as NPR's David Welna reports, the talk is not translating into solutions.
DAVID WELNA: If there was any common ground linking both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue today, it was the desire by some very powerful politicians to show that when it comes to gas prices, they get it.
Here's Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): Whether we want it or not, there's going to have to be a discussion as to fuel prices, what's going on. That's the number one issue facing America today. It's more important now than the housing market.
WELNA: And here's Reid's Republican counterpart, Mitch McConnell.
Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): The number one issue for Americans right now and their greatest concern is the price of gas at the pump.
WELNA: And here's President Bush at a Rose Garden news conference this morning.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: Americans are concerned about energy prices. And I can understand why.
WELNA: The solution Mr. Bush argued was to do what Congress has refused to do throughout his presidency - approve opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR, to oil drilling. Doing so, he promised, would allow the U.S. to produce another million barrels of oil a day.
Pres. BUSH: There would be about a 20 percent increase of all crude oil production of the U.S. levels, and it would likely mean lower gas prices, and yet such efforts to explore ANWR have been consistently blocked.
WELNA: Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski picked up the argument in the Senate chamber.
Senator LISA MURKOWSKI (Republican, Alaska): I will be the first one to admit to you that opening ANWR tomorrow will not produce more oil tomorrow. We recognize that, but we do believe that it will dampen the price speculation that is helping to fuel higher prices.
WELNA: President Bush's other proposal to force down gas prices was to build more refineries.
Pres. BUSH: It's been more than 30 years since America built its last new refinery. Yet in this area, too, Congress has repeatedly blocked efforts to expand capacity and build more refineries.
WELNA: The Senate's number two Democrat, Dick Durbin, agreed the problem is with the refineries, but not that there aren't enough of them.
Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): Today, the refineries in America are operating at 85 percent capacity. Don't buy this agreement that it's about refineries. They have more capacity that they're holding back, so that they can keep their product dear and limited and short, and so that the consumers will ultimately pay more.
WELNA: Democrats are divided over waiving the federal gas tax this summer. Presidential contender Barack Obama says it won't make much difference, while Hillary Clinton - like Republican John McCain - supports the idea. One of Clinton's strongest supporters is New York Senator Chuck Schumer.
Senator CHUCK SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): We believe that there ought to be a gas tax holiday, but Big Oil ought to pay for it. Take some of the money out of the royalties, take some of the money out of the windfall profits, and reduce that gas tax. It's that simple.
WELNA: But it's not that simple for Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn.
Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): It may be fashionable to beat up on Big Oil and say, let's tax the oil companies because they're making too much money. But you know what, if we raise taxes on the oil companies, we all end up paying an increased price of gasoline at the pump.
WELNA: But there was almost no talk today about conservation. Here's as close as President Bush came to the subject.
Pres. BUSH: But the market is going to, you know, do as much for encouraging conservation as anything else is now. And so, I firmly believe that, you know, if there's a magic wand to wave, I'd be waving it, of course.
WELNA: What Congress should really do, Mr. Bush added, is reassure consumers by making his tax cuts permanent.
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President Bush sought on Tuesday to blame Congress for the country's high fuel, electricity and food prices, saying lawmakers had been an obstacle to his proposals to address the problems.
At a Rose Garden news conference, the president acknowledged that it was a "tough time for our economy" and that Americans were "understandably anxious."
The president then presented a litany of proposals he said Congress had thwarted.
"I've repeatedly submitted proposals to help address these problems," the president said. "Yet time after time, Congress chose to block them."
Bush said the lawmakers had not acted on "critical legislation that would modernize the Federal Housing Administration, reform Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and allow state housing agencies to issue tax-free bonds to refinance subprime loans."
He also said Congress was dragging its feet on legislation to make more student loans available and ease the mortgage crunch.
The president accused lawmakers of standing in the way of his plan to deal with high gas prices, namely by opening up Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR, for "environmentally safe" drilling.
"It's been more than 30 years since America built its last new refinery, yet in this area, too, Congress has repeatedly blocked efforts to expand capacity and build more refineries," Bush said.
He reiterated his call for increasing production of "clean, safe nuclear power."
'These Are Difficult Times'
The president said he was open to a proposal to suspend gas and diesel taxes over the summer. The federal gas tax is 18.4 cents a gallon and 24.4 cents for diesel.
Two of the presidential candidates — Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, and Democratic hopeful Sen. Hillary Clinton — back a tax holiday on gasoline. Clinton's Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama, opposes it, calling it a gimmick that won't provide any significant relief to motorists. Gas prices average about $3.60 a gallon nationally.
Asked whether he was premature in saying the U.S. economy is not in a recession, the president said the average person was not concerned about the words used to describe the economic sluggishness — only about whether officials were aware of its impact.
"These are difficult times. And the American people know it, and they want to know whether or not Congress knows it," the president said.
The economic problems of average Americans have increased in recent months. The housing crisis, combined with fast-rising prices for food and gasoline and a weakening job market, have all put stress on family finances. Economists are divided over whether the country has officially fallen into a recession. But for many Americans, there's little doubt it feels like one.
Watching Economic Indicators
A clearer picture of the economy could emerge on Wednesday, when the government releases the gross domestic product results for the first three months of the year. If it shows that the economy contracted, a consensus will build that the economy has moved into a recession. The White House is hoping that a recession can be avoided with the help of the stimulus payments that are starting to be received by tax filers.
Nearly six million payments will be made by direct deposit into taxpayer accounts by the end of the week. Under the stimulus program, single filers earning less than $75,000 receive rebates of up to $600. Couples earning less than $150,000 receive payments of up to $1,200. And parents receive rebates for children as well. Up to 130 million taxpayers will receive rebate payments by July.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) found fault with the president's accusations that Congress has delayed solutions to America's problems.
"The truth is the president has closed his eyes and placed his hands over his ears as these problems have grown," Schumer said.
The senator then said that Bush is "plain wrong" and has "repeatedly ignored shots across the bow about the deteriorating economy."
The president's talk comes on a day of more troubling news for the economy, amid record high oil prices, food prices and foreclosures. A report released by RealtyTrac on Tuesday found that foreclosure rates more than doubled in February from early 2007.
The New York-based Conference Board also said that its Consumer Confidence Index, which had plummeted in March, fell again to 62.3 in April, down from the revised 65.9 last month and 76.4 in February. The index remains at its weakest point since March 2003.