House panel OKs another 5 on gas tax But measure faces an uncertain fate

August 01, 1991|By Peter Osterlund | Peter Osterlund,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The House's tax-writing panel voted yesterday to increase gasoline taxes by a nickel a gallon to help pay for a $153.5 billion package of highway and mass transit initiatives -- including $7 billion of special local projects loved by xTC lawmakers.

The 19-17 vote in the Ways and Means Committee represented a hard-won victory for the House's Democratic leadership, which is struggling past the objections of President Bush and the taunts of rank-and-file Republicans to win majority support for the new levy.

It may be a hollow victory. The tax proposal has earned a chilly response from Senate Democrats. Given that the two chambers will eventually negotiate a compromise transportation bill, observers give the tax increase slim chance of legislative survival.

"They're not kidding anybody but themselves," Republican whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia said of the House's gas-tax backers.

"I don't think there's any likelihood of this bill coming back with a tax on it. I think it's going to collapse."

As a result, the Democratic leadership's support for the tax, worth an estimated $23 billion over the next five years, is giving a bad case of heartburn to some party backbenchers.

"Everyone's getting ready to get in their car and go on vacation," said Representative Brian Donnelly, D-Mass. "And here we are voting to raise their gas taxes."

Although seven Democrats joined 10 Republicans in voting against the increase, some Democrats fear that GOP strategists will try to use this latest tax proposal as proof of a Democratic fetish for taxation.

"Once again, we're out in front to raise taxes," griped Representative Byron L. Dorgan, D-N.D. "I don't think it's wise."

Such lawmakers fret that the effort could prove doubly damaging, if, as they predict, political pressures conspire to keep the tax from actually seeing the light of day.

The Ways and Means action would raise gas taxes from their current 14-cent-a-gallon level to 19 cents at the start of the new fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

Even though three Republicans were a part of the panel's majority yesterday, many of their fellow party members are sharpening knives for a frontal assault on a Democratic-sponsored tax increase they say would deal an unfair wallop to the middle class.

"It's clear where the passion for raising taxes is, and it's not the Republicans," said Mr. Gingrich. "I don't favor raising taxes, because raising taxes kills jobs."

Democratic supporters of the tax argue that the public won't see it that way.

"If it's for the rebuilding of America, seems to me that's money well spent," said Representative Mike Synar, D-Okla., whose district is scheduled to receive a shiny new, $11.5 million bridge if the bill is adopted as is. "I think people are more supportive of a tax like that if they can see what the tax is going towards."

Other Democrats, however, bridle at the thought of asking consumers to pay more for infrastructure when a $17 billion highway trust fund exists -- supposedly to pay for such necessities.

In three years, that fund is expected to swell to $23 billion.

"The money is supposedly already there," said Representative Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md.-3rd, a Ways and Means member who voted with the majority yesterday but says he may vote against the bill when it comes to the floor later this week, before Congress departs for a monthlong recess. "I have trouble supporting a tax."

The problem is that the government can't dip into the trust fund to patch up the infrastructure, either.

As a result of last fall's multiyear deficit-reduction deal, lawmakers are prevented from increasing spending in one area without cutting it in another -- or without raising taxes.

On paper, the trust fund now exists only to offset the deficit.

Thus, if Congress were to simply use the highway fund as it was intended, it would be breaking the terms of the budget agreement.

"It's a terrible box we've gotten ourselves into," said Representative Robert T. Matsui, D-Calif., who supports the gas tax. "We're left with nothing but lousy choices."

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