WASHINGTON - The Senate took a halting step Thursday toward acting on legislation that would temporarily roll back 4.3 cents of the federal gas tax. The measure has little chance of House passage and does not offer much relief for motorists coping with spiraling prices at the pump.
Republicans led by Majority Leader Trent Lott are making the issue prime fodder for this election year, referring to it as the ''Gore tax'' because Vice President Al Gore cast the tie-breaking 1993 Senate vote to make it law.
GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush favors ''efforts to lower gas prices'' but has not taken a stand on the temporary repeal, spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said.
Suspending the tax, said Alaska Republican Sen. Frank Murkowski, ''represents us doing something and the administration doing nothing.''
Substantive action on the measure was put off until next week at the earliest, despite an 86-11 Senate vote Thursday to proceed.
Most Democrats and some Republicans oppose the repeal, and they could have tried to muster the votes to kill the bill. But rather than going on record as opposing a tax rollback, they opted to let the bill remain alive - and give themselves time to offer alternatives.
''I could not be more strongly in opposition to repealing the gas tax,'' said Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. ''I think this ought to be debated.''
Lott, R-Miss., still faces an uphill fight to find the votes necessary to overcome bipartisan opposition to his legislation, which would eliminate the 4.3-cent-a-gallon tax for the rest of the year and suspend the entire 18.4-cent federal gas tax until January if gas prices top $2 a gallon.
The debate came a few days after the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries agreed to boost production by 1.7 million barrels of oil a day, which could trigger a slow price decline to follow the recent drop from $34 a barrel a few weeks ago to $26.45 a barrel this week. U.S. officials say the crude price could drop another $2.50 a barrel by late summer.
Opponents to Lott's bill, including many Republicans, said the proposal would jeopardize about $7 billion a year in money for highway, bridge and mass transit projects that are high priorities on Capitol Hill. Lott, however, said his bill would replace the lost money out of projected budget surpluses.
Other critics said the tax relief would be too meager - a motorist who drove 12,000 miles a year at 20 miles per gallon would realize savings of only $26 - and there was no way to guarantee that oil companies would actually pass the tax cut on to consumers. Democrats said blaming Gore, the presumptive 2000 Democratic presidential nominee, appeared to be the GOP's main intent.
''Reducing the price of fuel by 4.3 cents a gallon for part of the year isn't the answer,'' said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev. ''It's quite clear that repeal of the gas tax is really an effort to make a political statement.''
Although Democrats talked about reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil, a renewed push for energy efficiency and better development of alternatives such as solar power, Republicans contend the long-term answer is a series of tax breaks to boost U.S. production, opening more federal lands to oil exploration and a get-tough negotiating stance with OPEC.
At his news conference Wednesday, President Clinton said he didn't expect any gas tax rollback to reach his desk and House Republican leaders are cool to the idea, partly because of fierce opposition from Transportation Committee Chairman Bud Shuster, R-Pa., and other key lawmakers.
The bill is S. 2285.
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