Can Washington Deliver Lower Gasoline Prices?

With gasoline prices now nearing $4 a gallon in some parts of the country, the high cost to fill up the tank is increasingly the hot topic on Capitol Hill, at the White House and on the campaign trail.

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One small news item may serve as an example of the giant ways the world economy is under strain. Some scientists are saying we should stop using food to make biofuel. The high demand for fuel is increasing food prices and adding to a worldwide food shortage. An Ohio State University researcher says we need to feed the stomach before we feed the car.

There are long term alternatives, like making fuel from plants that nobody eats. But in the short-term, of course, if you took the corn ethanol out of cars, your gas prices might go even higher. So that's the challenge, to find economic solutions that don't make things even worse.

This morning, we're going to examine what's going wrong, and also hear some politicians' competing proposals to fix it. We begin with NPR's John Ydstie in Washington.

JOHN YDSTIE: President Bush held a news conference on a windy spring day in the Rose Garden yesterday to focus on what he called a sour economy. He began with a quick summary of the economic problems facing the country.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Across our country, many Americans are understandably anxious about issues affecting their pocketbook, from gas and food prices to mortgage and tuition bills. They're looking to their elected leaders in Congress for action.

YDSTIE: The president went on to criticize the Congress for failing to enact reforms he said would ease the housing crisis, and he chided lawmakers for passing a bloated and wasteful farm bill that he said would raise food prices even more.

But most of his comments were focused on countering the rising cost of energy. He said that Congress is blocking efforts to expand nuclear power. But the president's main solution: boost domestic oil production.

Pres. BUSH: I will tell you this: that if Congress is truly interested in solving the problem, they can send the right signal by saying we're going to explore for oil and gas in the U.S. territories, starting with ANWAR.

YDSTIE: That's the Artic National Wildlife Refuge, which the Congress has refused to open to drilling for environmental reasons. For each economic problem the president listed, he blamed Congress for misguided action or inaction.

And after the news conference, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi quickly countered. She said the nation's economic problems are the result of seven years of neglect by the Bush administration. And she offered some solutions of her own.

Pelosi urged Mr. Bush to stop putting oil in the nation's strategic petroleum reserve. She said that would lower gas prices. And she said the president should stop threatening to veto tax credits for renewable energy.

On the campaign trail, there was no shortage of solutions, either, including one that Hillary Clinton borrowed from John McCain - a federal gas tax holiday.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Democratic Presidential Candidate): I would immediately lower gas prices by temporarily suspending the gas tax for consumers and businesses.

(Soundbite of applause)

Sen. CLINTON: We will pay for it by imposing a windfall profits tax on the big oil companies.

YDSTIE: That's Hillary Clinton, campaigning in Indianapolis yesterday. Barack Obama opposes the gas tax holiday, saying it would be ineffective and that it would ultimately raise demand and gas prices. President Bush says he is open to discussing the idea of a gas tax holiday, but would not endorse it during his press conference yesterday.

It's no surprise politicians are focusing on gas prices. The average price of gasoline is about $3.60 a gallon for regular, and a new Kaiser Family Foundation poll found 44 percent of Americans surveyed say paying for gasoline is a serious problem for them. It will be even more serious if gasoline hits $4 a gallon this summer, as analysts are predicting.

John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington.

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