WASHINGTON — President Bush rejected calls to increase the federal fuel tax Thursday, saying Congress could serve the nation's infrastructure needs by better prioritizing how it spends money.
Bush also used a White House news conference to turn up the pressure on Iran.
Since last week's bridge collapse in Minnesota focused attention on the nation's massive infrastructure needs, bipartisan calls have emerged to increase the 18.4 cents-a-gallon fuel tax, which hasn't been raised since 1993.
"Before we raise taxes, which could affect economic growth, I'd urge Congress to examine how they set priorities," the president said.
But so-called earmarks, which Bush was implicitly criticizing, accounted for only about $24 billion out of the $286 billion transportation bill that he signed into law two years ago, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. And most of them were based on needs identified by state and local transportation authorities.
On the Middle East, the president appeared to turn up the heat on Iran over its reported supply of weapons and training to extremists who are targeting American forces in Iraq, saying that one of the main reasons U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker has met in Baghdad with his Iranian counterpart "was to send the message that there will be consequences . . . for people targeting, delivering EFPs, highly sophisticated IEDs that kill Americans in Iraq."
Bush didn't specify what those consequences might be. EFPs, or explosively formed penetrators, are powerful roadside bombs — improvised explosive devices, in military parlance — that can penetrate armored vehicles.
The president appeared to shrug off reports of a warm meeting in Tehran between U.S.-backed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iran's news agency quoted Maliki as saying that Iran has a "positive and constructive role" to play in the region.
"Now if the signal is that Iran is constructive, I will have to have a heart-to-heart with my friend the prime minister, because I don't believe they are constructive," Bush said in response. "I don't think he in his heart of hearts thinks they're constructive either."
The president may have previewed a crucial Sept. 15 report to Congress by Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. military commander in Iraq, on 18 benchmarks of progress in Iraq. "My own perspective is — is that they have made some progress, but not enough," he said.
On the domestic front, Bush addressed reports that he'd seek a reduction in corporate tax rates by saying that any effort to do so would have to be "revenue-neutral." He probably would seek cuts in certain tax deductions.
"However, this is a difficult issue," the president said. "It's much easier to get something in the code than get it out of the code."
With regard to the subprime mortgage crisis, Bush said he was open to a federal effort to assist lending institutions that would help homeowners refinance their homes, but that he wouldn't support direct grants to embattled homeowners.
He also called for increasing financial education, saying that in many cases "people aren't sure what they're signing up for."
Asked whether, as reported, an International Committee of the Red Cross report deems some U.S. actions toward alleged terrorist detainees "tantamount to torture," the president tersely responded: "Haven't seen it. We don't torture."
He defended the fact that the prison camp at Guantanamo is still open, despite his assertions that he wants to close it, by saying that authorities must figure out what to do with those who are still there. "A lot of people don't want killers in their midst," he said.
Bush also bristled at a reporter who, citing the cases of former aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, questioned the president's sense of accountability for members of his administration. Bush commuted Libby's federal sentence in a perjury case, and he's resisted bipartisan demands for Gonzales' resignation in the wake of the scandal involving fired U.S attorneys and allegations of politicization at the Justice Department.
Bush said Libby had "paid a high price" for his misdeeds. Of Gonzales, he said: "Why would I hold somebody accountable who's done nothing wrong?"
Bush will spend much of the weekend at his parents' home in Maine, where he's scheduled to meet with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who's vacationing in adjacent New Hampshire. He'll then return to Washington briefly before spending much of the rest of August at his ranch in Texas.