MONROEVILLE, Pa. - On a day when the Bush administration sent out a small army of Republicans to sell its energy plan in town meetings across the country, the nearly three-dozen Cabinet officials and House and Senate members had to struggle to use the word crisis.
The blitz of town meetings, scheduled amid White House frustration with the way Congress has responded to President Bush's energy plan, came as gasoline prices - a key force driving his focus on boosting supply - dropped from a peak of $1.76 a gallon to $1.51, and fell as low as $1.16 in Tulsa, Okla., according to the Lundberg survey of 8,000 gas stations nationwide.
At the outset of the summer vacation season, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham had warned that prices could spike at more than $3 a gallon.
In the Pittsburgh suburbs, where Vice President Dick Cheney led a town meeting on energy at the Community College of Allegheny County, the man who crafted Bush's energy policy was all but speechless because of a severe case of laryngitis. Cheney had to delegate much of the talking to aides, among them political counselor Mary Matalin, who, no longer able to proclaim an energy crisis with much conviction, used the word challenge.
Cheney, who has called for an aggressive program of increased oil and gas drilling, coal mining, and an increased reliance on nuclear power, managed to rasp out that he could offer "no silver bullet" to solve what the Bush administration has warned remains a long-term threat to the U.S. economy.
At the White House, Bush conceded that his energy program was becoming a tougher sell.
"I think any time there's not an immediate problem that's apparent to people, it's tough to convince people to think long-term," Bush told reporters in the Oval Office as he promoted his energy plan. "But it's clear there are warning signs" of a crisis, he said.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration warned this month that increasing demand in industrial countries would cause a tightening of supplies that would rapidly deplete global oil inventories. The agency predicted that worldwide stocks would drop to 2.6 billion barrels by September, 70 million barrels below normal. Since then, however, the weakening world economy has reduced industrial demand.
Bush cited the experience of California, which endured rolling blackouts this year, as another reason to adopt a long-term energy policy.
"It should be worrisome to people that the state that's had the best conservation effort is the state that's had brownouts," Bush said. "We're going to take a very strong effort to convince the American people that we've got a plan that couples not only sound conservation but the need to develop new sources of energy."
Several energy bills are advancing in the House, with two committees expected to move legislation this week. One bill promotes clean coal technology, calls for a modest increase in fuel economy for sport-utility vehicles and requires new energy savings by federal agencies. Another would allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, which Bush has advocated.
The energy bills are expected to be combined in coming weeks, with a vote possible before the August recess, according to GOP lawmakers. A floor fight is likely over drilling in the Arctic refuge and the fuel-economy provisions.
Cheney said he is optimistic about the future of the administration's proposal. "I'm hopeful that we'll have legislation before the end of the year," he said.
Cheney, after drinking tea all day in an effort to regain his voice, spoke sporadically during an hourlong meeting that started with a flurry of speeches by Pennsylvania Republicans and ended with a question-and-answer period involving Cheney, his aides and members of the audience.
Cheney, who has backed off statements that conservation is a "moral virtue" but no basis for national energy policy, sought to emphasize that the Bush plan contains important efforts to conserve energy and develop clean, renewable sources, as well as boosting supply.
Among the new, energy-saving technologies that Cheney mentioned were hybrid automobiles that run on electricity as well as gas. The Bush plan offers tax breaks for buyers. But Cheney said there is no substitute for increased production as a way to control price spikes that have troubled consumers this year.
"In the final analysis, price depends on supply," he said.
An audience of about 250 people - picked by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, a staunch Bush ally - included what administration officials described as a cross-section of the community, including industry representatives, union members and conservationists.
The discussion offered more broad philosophical points than specifics, some participants said.
"I didn't hear very much tonight," said Barbara N. Dickman, a state health specialist invited to attend by AARP, formerly the American Association of Retired Persons. "Mary Matalin said absolutely nothing. [Pennsylvania Rep.] Melissa Hart said absolutely nothing."