WASHINGTON—In their rush to avoid political punishment from soaring gasoline prices, Republicans in the nation's capital risk pushing aside a conservative principle of keeping the government out of the private marketplace—and angering the party's conservative base at a time they can ill afford to lose support.
Among the Republican proposals offered this week as gas topped $3 a gallon: mandating more fuel-efficient cars, investigating oil companies and revoking federal tax breaks and subsidies for the oil industry.
Republicans also proposed several initiatives popular with their base of supporters, such as opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. But those ideas were overshadowed—at least for many conservatives—by the uncharacteristic zeal of many GOP leaders to turn the government against big oil.
"It just embarrasses me that Republicans are leading the effort, and it's just pure election-year politics," said Rush Limbaugh, the influential conservative talk-show host.
"Oil hit $75 a barrel recently and apparently transformed the Republicans into Democrats," commentator R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. said in The American Spectator, a conservative periodical.
Tyrrell warned that the GOP gas-price response could further depress conservatives who already were frustrated by such affronts from Washington as President Bush's nomination of the thinly qualified Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, soaring federal spending and the government's inability to stop illegal immigration.
"Republicans have continued to forsake their principles. Yet what do they expect to get for this abandonment," Tyrrell fumed. "Owing to their excessive spending, there already is fear that the Republican vote will stay at home this autumn. Now with the Republicans adopting the economic illiteracy of the Democrats, there is even more pressure for the Republicans to stay home."
The conservative backlash capped a frenetic week in which gasoline prices rose, oil companies led by Exxon Mobil reported record first-quarter profits and Washington politicians raced from gas-station photo ops to news conferences making proposals that they hoped would insulate them from angry voters in this year's congressional elections.
Gasoline prices were the country's top concern this week, edging out Iran's nuclear program, illegal immigration and violence in Iraq, according to a new poll taken for NBC and The Wall Street Journal. The survey showed that most voters didn't blame Bush or the Republican-controlled Congress for the high gas prices. The biggest bloc, 37 percent, blamed oil companies. That explains why Democrats worked to tie Republicans to the oil companies and why Republicans cast themselves as anti-oil company. (The poll of 1,005 adults was conducted April 21-24 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.)
Bush, for example, went to a BP service station in Biloxi, Miss., to announce that he wants Congress to give him the power to order the auto industry to make more fuel-efficient cars. To another audience, he vowed to investigate the oil industry for possible price-gouging.
Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., usually a doctrinaire conservative, proposed ending a federal subsidy for oil companies that drill on public land.
"This exemption is an irresponsible use of taxpayer dollars," Kyl said. "It is completely unnecessary to continue granting this exemption to the oil industry when gasoline and natural gas prices have skyrocketed and oil companies are earning record profits."
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., the liberals' liberal, couldn't have agreed more.
The Senate Finance Committee sought the tax returns of 15 large oil and gas companies in a congressional examination of profits and high pay for executives, rare when Republicans run the Congress.
"We're seeing record profits and significant executive compensation in the oil and gas industry," said committee Chairman Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. "I want to make sure the oil companies aren't taking a speed pass by the tax man."
The Senate Judiciary Committee jumped in as well, vowing an investigation of the oil industry.
"With the high fuel prices the American consumer is enduring, it is time for an examination of what oil and gas industry consolidations have done to prices," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., that panel's chairman. "We have allowed too many companies to merge together and reduce competition."
Several Republican lawmakers proposed giving Americans $100 checks to ease the pain of higher gasoline prices. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, called it a "theatrical response."
One analyst said Republicans were caught between their instinct for political survival and their beliefs about how best to solve energy problems.
"The conundrum they face is that they know better," said Michael Franc, the vice president for government relations at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research center.
"What they know is that the actual answers to increase supply or take down demand offer no quick fixes. But politicians in an election year are desperate for a quick fix . . . They're trying to balance two things that don't balance."
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent James Kuhnhenn contributed to this article.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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