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Originally published Tuesday, August 23, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Will GOP pay for high gas prices?

Americans are mad as heck about soaring gas prices, and Democrats hope they will take it out on the Republicans who control the federal...

Knight Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON — Americans are mad as heck about soaring gas prices, and Democrats hope they will take it out on the Republicans who control the federal government in next year's midterm elections.

"Bush does nothing to combat rising prices," the Democratic National Committee said last week in a new attack seeking to link President Bush, his party, gas prices and oil-company profits in the public mind. "Republicans are in the oil companies' pockets, and Bush is in the oil companies' pockets."

The White House responds that no one can turn around gas prices instantly, that Bush fought for years to enact an energy bill and that the new plan, signed into law this month, will take years to produce results.

"This is a problem that took decades to develop; it's not going to be solved overnight," Deputy White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said.

The retail price of gasoline increased 6 cents last week to an average $2.61 a gallon nationwide, a record, the Energy Department reported yesterday.

ABC News, meanwhile, released a new poll that may reflect increasing exasperation at the pump.

Forty-two percent of 1,002 adults surveyed Aug. 18-21 said they were "very worried" that rising gasoline prices would "seriously damage" the nation's economy and 39 percent said they were "somewhat worried." Forty-five percent said they are spending less on other things so they can pay for gasoline. The poll, conducted by TNS Intersearch of Horsham, Pa., has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Other polls suggest most Americans tend to blame oil companies and foreign oil producers more than Bush or other politicians. But if gas prices inflame inflation enough to drag down the economy, that could be the straw that breaks the Republican grip on Congress.

Voters already are deeply unhappy with their lawmakers. Approval ratings for Congress rival the lows that preceded the 1994 voter revolt, which ended a 40-year Democratic House majority. The news from Iraq isn't brightening the public mood. Throw in resentment of high gasoline prices, topped perhaps by a resulting weak economy, and it could be a rough election year for incumbents of the governing party.

That's what Democrats want.

"Voters who are paying more at the pump are going to make their voice heard in the '06 elections," said Josh Earnest, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee.

Democrats note average gasoline prices were 39 percent higher last week than when Bush was sworn into his second term seven months ago and 75 percent higher than when he took office in 2001. They complain the new energy measure "gives billions in tax breaks to oil companies" already enjoying record profits. They said Republicans had received $67 million in contributions from the oil-and-gas industry since 2000.

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Yet Democrats received $17 million from the industry during that period, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, and many also voted for the energy bill: 75 in the House, 25 in the Senate.

What would the Democrats do to curb prices? They would investigate the oil companies and their profits, Earnest said. They also would take some of the oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to the marketplace in an effort to ease prices.

Democrat Al Gore urged tapping the reserve in the 2000 presidential campaign, and President Clinton reluctantly agreed, but it had a negligible impact. Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry again urged dipping into the reserve to ease gas prices in 2004, but Bush refused. He says the reserve should be saved for the purpose it was created for, as an emergency supply in case foreign oil sources are disrupted.

Lawmakers also cannot easily suspend or reduce the 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal tax on gasoline. That money goes into a trust fund for highway and mass-transit upgrades. When gas prices climbed in the 1990s, some Republicans were quick to call for a lower tax. This time, however, Congress has boxed itself in by passing the largest-ever transportation bill just before the August recess.

Ronald Utt, who studies energy issues at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said there's "a lot of silence" on taxes "partly because everyone [in Congress] appreciates their pork-barrel projects would be at risk" if gas taxes are cut.

Even if that obstacle could be surmounted, "if you roll back that tax, people have to keep in mind that may not transfer into savings for consumers," American Automobile Association spokesman Mantill Williams said. "It's not automatic [that gasoline firms] will give that discount to the consumer."

The one area sparking bipartisan interest is requiring automakers to produce more fuel-efficient cars and SUVs by tightening what is known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. Lawmakers in the past have sided with the Big Three automakers in opposing broad increases in CAFE standards, but several legislators are considering plans to increase standards.

Americans by a nearly 2-to-1 ratio think Bush isn't doing an effective job handling energy problems, according to a recent survey for The Associated Press. Asked who they blame for high prices, however, 52 percent listed oil companies or foreign countries, while 21 percent blamed politicians.

"There's no question gas prices are being felt," said Ed Patru, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the party's arm for House races. "But it's pretty difficult to assign blame to one party or the other for rising gas prices."

He said Democrats were overreaching in search of a national issue to overcome the uphill struggle they face to win back Congress, where Republicans hold majorities of 55-44-1 in the Senate and 232-202-1 in the House.

Democrats need 15 seats to take the House, but at least 14 they now hold are vulnerable to Republican takeover, said Charles Cook, a respected nonpartisan analyst.

Republican pollster Whit Ayres agreed that gas prices were contributing to a sour public mood, "but Democrats are suffering as much as Republicans from the funk."

To persuade voters to abandon Republicans and turn to them, Democrats may need to lay out a detailed outline of what they would do differently on energy and other issues, notably including the Iraq war, some analysts suggested.

"So far the president has dodged the bullet," independent pollster John Zogby said. "If we see gas prices stay as high as they are, Democrats will probably get some sort of message together and Americans may be in a punishing mood. But not yet."

The Energy Department's weekly price report and the ABC News poll were provided by Bloomberg News; details on the federal gasoline tax and CAFE standards were reported by The Washington Post.

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