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Bush, Congress Clash on Dealing with Gas Prices


They are talking the talk in Washington about record-high gas prices. Both members of Congress and President Bush showed concern about that topic today.

But as NPR's David Welna reports, the talk is not translating into solutions.

DAVID WELNA: If there was any common ground linking both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue today, it was the desire by some very powerful politicians to show that when it comes to gas prices, they get it.

Here's Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): Whether we want it or not, there's going to have to be a discussion as to fuel prices, what's going on. That's the number one issue facing America today. It's more important now than the housing market.

WELNA: And here's Reid's Republican counterpart, Mitch McConnell.

Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): The number one issue for Americans right now and their greatest concern is the price of gas at the pump.

WELNA: And here's President Bush at a Rose Garden news conference this morning.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Americans are concerned about energy prices. And I can understand why.

WELNA: The solution Mr. Bush argued was to do what Congress has refused to do throughout his presidency - approve opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR, to oil drilling. Doing so, he promised, would allow the U.S. to produce another million barrels of oil a day.

Pres. BUSH: There would be about a 20 percent increase of all crude oil production of the U.S. levels, and it would likely mean lower gas prices, and yet such efforts to explore ANWR have been consistently blocked.

WELNA: Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski picked up the argument in the Senate chamber.

Senator LISA MURKOWSKI (Republican, Alaska): I will be the first one to admit to you that opening ANWR tomorrow will not produce more oil tomorrow. We recognize that, but we do believe that it will dampen the price speculation that is helping to fuel higher prices.

WELNA: President Bush's other proposal to force down gas prices was to build more refineries.

Pres. BUSH: It's been more than 30 years since America built its last new refinery. Yet in this area, too, Congress has repeatedly blocked efforts to expand capacity and build more refineries.

WELNA: The Senate's number two Democrat, Dick Durbin, agreed the problem is with the refineries, but not that there aren't enough of them.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): Today, the refineries in America are operating at 85 percent capacity. Don't buy this agreement that it's about refineries. They have more capacity that they're holding back, so that they can keep their product dear and limited and short, and so that the consumers will ultimately pay more.

WELNA: Democrats are divided over waiving the federal gas tax this summer. Presidential contender Barack Obama says it won't make much difference, while Hillary Clinton - like Republican John McCain - supports the idea. One of Clinton's strongest supporters is New York Senator Chuck Schumer.

Senator CHUCK SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): We believe that there ought to be a gas tax holiday, but Big Oil ought to pay for it. Take some of the money out of the royalties, take some of the money out of the windfall profits, and reduce that gas tax. It's that simple.

WELNA: But it's not that simple for Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn.

Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): It may be fashionable to beat up on Big Oil and say, let's tax the oil companies because they're making too much money. But you know what, if we raise taxes on the oil companies, we all end up paying an increased price of gasoline at the pump.

WELNA: But there was almost no talk today about conservation. Here's as close as President Bush came to the subject.

Pres. BUSH: But the market is going to, you know, do as much for encouraging conservation as anything else is now. And so, I firmly believe that, you know, if there's a magic wand to wave, I'd be waving it, of course.

WELNA: What Congress should really do, Mr. Bush added, is reassure consumers by making his tax cuts permanent.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.