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Wednesday, April 26, 2006 - Page updated at 02:34 PM

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Bush, Congress talk about gas prices, but not much they can do for drivers

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — President Bush and congressional Republicans are under mounting public pressure to reduce gasoline prices, but they have few — if any — policy choices that would cut prices over the next few months, as family driving reaches its annual peak.

Energy experts agree that almost everything that the president and Congress can do to increase gasoline supplies or trim demand would take years to implement. The few short-term options they have would do little to prevent the price of gasoline from reaching a national average of about $3.25 a gallon this summer.

"This is a long-lead-time business ... " said Daniel Yergin, chairman of the consulting firm Cambridge Energy Research Associates. "There's no switch to pull."

This year, Republicans, who are traditionally more sympathetic to the pleas of Big Oil, are lambasting the oil companies, with some calling for consideration of a windfall-profits tax.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Monday that Bush was ordering the Energy and Justice departments to investigate whether the price of gasoline has been illegally manipulated. Bush planned to announce the action today during a speech in Washington, McClellan said.

Aides expect Bush to say in the speech that he pushed through an energy bill last year designed to increase domestic oil and gasoline production, and that this year he recommended incentives for alternative-energy production.

But the White House is reluctant to promise a quick fix. "The problem has built up over many decades, and it isn't going to change overnight," Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino said. "... Nothing is going to be a magic wand that will lower gas prices overnight."

Oil analysts agree that the main causes of the rising prices cannot be mitigated by federal intervention. They include the rapidly rising demand for oil by China and India, instability in oil-rich Nigeria, financial speculation about a possible military confrontation with Iran, and the failure of U.S. refinery capacity to keep up with demand.

Still, Democrats are hammering Bush and his Republican colleagues for failing to come up with a strategy that would cut prices soon. They hope to harness voter anger over the trend and, by Election Day, turn it against the Republicans who control Congress.

In an April 20 memo to candidates, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recommended that Democrats running for Congress "hold an event at a gas station ... and pledge that, as a member of Congress, you will fight for families in your district, not the oil and gas executives for which this Republican Congress has fought so hard."

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Republicans fired back, accusing Democrats of stonewalling comprehensive energy legislation for years before a bill, which focused on long-term energy incentives, finally passed last year.

Still, Republicans at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are planning a series of actions aimed at boosting gasoline supplies and reducing prices. GOP lawmakers and Bush administration aides Monday discussed suspending environmental regulations that are forcing consumers to purchase expensive new gasoline blends with low sulfur levels.

Another option under discussion, which the president has used before, aides said, is to tap into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve as a way of increasing oil supplies and lowering prices. Energy consultants have also mentioned the possibility of cutting federal gas taxes, though that approach does not appear to be under consideration.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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