House Republicans cooling on idea of gas tax suspension

WASHINGTON - House Republicans are backing away from proposals to suspend a 4.3-cent-a-gallon gas tax to help ease spiraling prices at the pump. Although the GOP labels it the ''Gore tax'' because of the vice president's tie-breaking vote in 1993, opposition to a suspension from key Republicans, road builders and even truckers is sinking the idea.

''Let's not get bogged down on only one dimension of the problem - a short-term dimension that offers scant relief,'' House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, told reporters Tuesday.

There's a political attraction to lifting the tax while consumers fume about gas prices approaching $2 a gallon. And many Republicans have been eager to criticize Vice President Al Gore, whose 1993 vote broke a Senate tie and passed a budget that included a raise in the federal gas tax to 18.4 cents per gallon.

But transportation projects are favorites on Capitol Hill. Reps. Bud Shuster, R-Pa., and Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., the chairman and top Democrat on the Transportation Committee, wrote to their colleagues Tuesday saying the gas and diesel tax provides $7.2 billion for highways every year and loss of that revenue would have a ''devastating impact'' on construction and safety.

''Many road improvement projects would have to be put on hold. Programs to fight drunk driving, encourage seat belt use, and hire truck safety inspectors would also have to be cut,'' they wrote, adding that there is no guarantee the tax cut would result in lower prices at the pump.

In a memo to Senate staff, the American Road and Transportation Builders Association said the suspension, combined with a separate proposal for a one-year rollback of the 24.4-cent-a-gallon tax on diesel fuel, would cost highway programs an estimated $10.3 billion. Some truckers agreed that would seriously damage critical road and bridge maintenance and construction plans.

''We think that's going in the wrong direction,'' said Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association. ''Any money that is collected goes to highways, and highways need to be maintained and repaired.''

Independent truckers are planning a protest at the Capitol on Thursday - the second this year - to demand action to lower fuel prices. But their top priorities are getting the U.S. government to press harder on the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to increase supply, to oversee freight rates to ensure they are fair, and to release fuel from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

Many lawmakers also questioned whether suspending the 4.3-cent tax would do any good or would even be noticed by consumers. For example, a motorist who drove 12,000 miles a year at 20 miles per gallon would realize savings of only $26, assuming oil companies actually passed on the tax cut to customers.

''I don't know if it has any effect on fuel costs,'' said Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, a member of the House GOP leadership. ''Supply and demand is driving price right now.''

Republican leaders are shifting their focus from gas tax legislation to criticism of the administration's efforts to persuade the OPEC countries to increase supply and improve U.S. domestic oil supplies.

Armey pointed out that the United States prevented Iraqi aggression in the Middle East and helped bail out Mexico during economic hard times and said: ''It seems like our diplomatic relationships and our diplomatic standing with these OPEC countries is not what it ought to be.''

Rep. Benjamin Gilman, R-N.Y., chairman of the House International Relations Committee, has introduced legislation that would reduce or end any U.S. assistance or arms sales to countries found to be engaging in oil price fixing.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, appearing Tuesday on three morning TV programs, said President Clinton had not ruled out suspension of the gas tax but said the focus should be on negotiating with OPEC, getting more gasoline to market and increasing research into alternative energy sources, fuel-efficient vehicles and use of abundant natural gas.

''We're moving ahead with getting refiners and gasoline people and oil companies to get more gasoline out into the market,'' Richardson said on ABC's ''Good Morning America.'' ''We know people are hurting. But we're moving and we're considering a number of options.''

As for the GOP's ''Gore tax'' label, Gore campaign spokesman Doug Hattaway said Republicans should stop making ''political hay'' out of rising gas prices and work for solutions.

Hattaway also said Gore's tie-breaking vote in 1993 produced a budget the administration considers a key to ending the federal deficit. The gas tax increase originally was used to reduce the deficit, then was shifted by Congress in 1997 into the highway account.

''He's proud to have cast the deciding vote on an economic stimulus package that has helped bring about the longest economic expansion in U.S. history,'' Hattaway said. ---

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