Gas prices become election issue

Democrats, Republicans exchange blame as prices in U.S. reach record high

May 19, 2004|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - With gasoline prices at record-high levels, Democrats heaped blame on President Bush yesterday, saying he has failed to help consumers who must reach deeper into their pockets and that he broke a campaign vow to exert pressure on oil-producing nations.

The harsh rhetoric was a clear sign that just as the busy summer travel season begins, the Democrats are determined to make gas prices a hot issue in a presidential election year.

White House aides and Republicans shot back, saying Democrats have stalled a comprehensive energy bill that would reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and bring gasoline prices down.

Campaigning in Portland, Ore., where drivers were paying more than $2.30 a gallon at some service stations yesterday, Sen. John Kerry, the president's likely Democratic opponent, accused Bush of neglecting ordinary Americans.

"Where is the president?" Kerry asked. "We need a president who is fighting for the American worker, the American family at the fuel pump."

In Washington, Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic national chairman, said Bush is "in the pocket of big oil" and that he has reneged on a pledge he made in 2000 to "jawbone" Middle East countries into keeping oil prices low.

"Four years later, they haven't heard a peep from the president," McAuliffe said. He said Democrats would keep up political attacks over gas prices.

On Capitol Hill, a group of Senate Democrats, including Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland, pushed a resolution calling for 1 million barrels of oil a day to be released from the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve for up to 60 days, in hopes of pushing down gas prices.

The plan was quickly ridiculed by Bush's energy secretary, Spencer Abraham. He said Democrats were "playing games" with the reserve, which was created to be tapped in major emergencies, such as a terrorist attack that severely cuts oil supplies.

The last time the reserve was opened was in 2000, when President Bill Clinton approved releasing 1 million barrels of oil a day for 30 days when gas prices spiked. The reserve, on Louisiana's Gulf Coast, holds about 660 million barrels.

Abraham said the White House is not considering dipping into the reserve or weighing another Democratic idea to temporarily shut off the supply of oil that flows into the reserve.

Rep. Joe L. Barton, a Texas Republican who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, accused Democrats of "swapping oil for votes." He argued that the Louisiana reserve "exists to supply America with energy in a time of national emergency, not to buy votes in an election emergency."

For years, it's been a political axiom that if gasoline prices skyrocket, the president will be pounded by critics who will complain that the White House is insensitive to an issue of importance to ordinary Americans.

In 2000, for example, Clinton was first attacked by Republicans in the Northeast whose constituents were paying soaring gas prices and wanted Clinton to open the strategic oil reserve. When Clinton decided to tap the reserve, other Republicans rebuked him, saying he was dipping into an emergency fund for political gain.

Analysts say that aside from opening the reserve, there is little the president or lawmakers can do, especially in the short term, to control gas prices when demand is high and the price of crude oil is soaring.

Kerry has made general proposals to work more effectively with oil-producing countries and to rely more on renewable energy to cut demand for oil. His proposals, though, would be unlikely to bring a quick fix.

Bush, meanwhile, has insisted that the main solution is to reduce dependence on foreign oil by opening up more domestic sources, such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, a proposal that has been blocked in Congress and would not provide immediate benefit.

Both parties have long made use of the issue in election-year politics. This year, much may depend on whether prices at the pump come down before the November election.

This week, the national average price for regular unleaded gasoline rose above $2 a gallon for the first time. But adjusted for inflation, that is far short of the figure in March 1981, when average pump prices, measured in 2004 dollars, hit $2.99 a gallon.

Polls have shown that voters are evenly split over whether Bush or Kerry would better manage the nation's gas prices.

At the White House yesterday, spokesman Scott McClellan responded to the charge that Bush had reneged on a promise to press oil-producers in the Middle East, saying the president "will continue to raise our concerns with these countries around the world."

McClellan called the salvos from Democrats "cheap political rhetoric" and said the president was trying to control gas prices when he introduced energy legislation three years ago that would open new sources of oil.

"This president has acted," McClellan said. "This president has put forward a plan."

Sun staff writer Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed to this article.

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