Gas Prices Play Big on the Campaign Trail When gas prices spike in an election year, political candidates scramble to offer their ideas for improving the system. Recent record-high gas prices have lawmakers from both parties demanding answers -- and possibly seeking a political advantage.
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Gas Prices Play Big on the Campaign Trail

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Gas Prices Play Big on the Campaign Trail

Gas Prices Play Big on the Campaign Trail

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Gas prices have become a hot topic on Capitol Hill as well. Democrats are pouncing on the price increases, hoping that voters this fall will blame the Republicans in power. Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers have been trying to deflect the blame, saying Democrats have blocked proposals to increase domestic energy production.

NPR's Brian Naylor has that part of the story.

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

Democrats were lined up behind microphones like drivers at a two dollar a gallon gas pump today, not quite believing what they'd found, but happy for the windfall. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said the blame for soaring prices rested on the shoulders of President Bush and Vice President Cheney.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California): We have two oilmen in the White House. The logical follow-up from that is three dollar a gallon gasoline. It is no accident. It is a cause and effect. A cause and effect.

NAYLOR: Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey blamed the energy bill Congress approved last year, which a majority of House Democrats opposed.

Representative ED MARKEY (Democrat, Massachusetts): We see these crocodile tears that are being shed by Republican leaders across Washington and across America, when only a year ago in April, right through August, when the president signed their energy bill, they were hailing it as an historic achievement. The Republican energy bill of last year was an historic failure. $75 a barrel is the tribute to that.

NAYLOR: And Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey questioned the sincerity of the president's call to phase out oil industry tax breaks designed to encourage exploration.

Senator ROBERT MENENDEZ (Democrat, New Jersey): And I guess when your poll numbers have hit rock bottom and your Congressional allies are avoiding you like the plague, there's no better time to see the light. And we're pleased that the president has finally reached the sensible conclusion that major oil companies do not need tax breaks.

NAYLOR: Menendez was one of several Democrats to propose legislative fixes. Facing a tough election challenge this fall, Menendez introduced a measure that would temporarily eliminate the federal gas tax, saving drivers 18 cents a gallon. California Senator Dianne Feinstein proposed a windfall profits tax on oil companies. Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington, a measure to increase transparency in energy markets. Both Democrats are up for re-election.

Republicans, clearly on the defensive, tried to turn the tables, blaming soaring gas prices on Democrats' obstructionism. Republican Senator Bob Bennett of Utah says the price at the pump wouldn't be going up if Democrats hadn't blocked drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Senator BOB BENNETT (Republican, Utah): If we had built the facilities at ANWR in 2001, when there was sufficient votes in the House but it was killed in the Senate, it's likely that oil would be coming on line now. Would it lower the price? Of course it would.

NAYLOR: Republicans have their own approaches to the problem. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist reiterated his call for investigations by the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice into price gouging.

Senator BILL FRIST (Republican, Maryland): We need to get to the bottom of it and if we do so, we may have legislative action required on the floor of the Senate or we may not. But only an investigation, only an examination by the FTC and DOJ can give us that answer.

NAYLOR: It's not clear that Congress can do much, if anything, to actually affect gasoline prices. There are expected to be more hearings and more calls for legislation and investigations. Republicans know if prices don't come down, voters are unlikely to be in a forgiving mood this fall.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

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