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Young Pushes Gas-Tax Hike

Setting the stage for a clash with President Bush and his own party leadership, House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) wants to push through a 5.4 cent per gallon increase in federal gas taxes to help pay for a massive $375 billion highway bill.

With a potential war in the Middle East looming and gas prices already above $2 per gallon in some parts of the country, many Republican insiders were surprised by the audacity of Young’s proposal and by his aggressive tactics, which some sources said have included threatening junior lawmakers’ pet projects in order to ensure their support.

Young and Transportation ranking member James Oberstar (D-Minn.) will outline their proposal at a press conference today. The plan would index the gas tax to inflation going back to 1993, causing an immediate increase of 5.4 cents, with the proceeds going toward the renewal for another six years of 1998’s bill.

Young spokesman Steve Hansen denied that the Alaskan had directly threatened projects, but he did say the chairman would make it clear to committee members that he expected their support if they wanted to remain on the panel.

“Young would not threaten a Member like that, but he would say, ‘You asked to get on this committee, and if you want to be on this committee you have to support the agenda,’” said Hansen. “If they cannot support the bipartisan agenda of the leadership of this committee they should reconsider their being on the committee.”

Despite Young’s clout and capacity for twisting arms, House Republican leadership aides said they severely doubted that such a tax hike would ever become law.

“Gas taxes are a bad idea under any scenario and are a horrible idea when gas is $2 a gallon,” said a senior GOP aide.

“I just don’t think we’re going to have a gas-tax increase,” agreed a Republican leadership staffer.

Along with the tax increase, Young and Oberstar are seeking nearly $14 billion more in highway, highway safety and mass-transit funding than Bush allowed for in his 2004 budget plan.

In a letter scheduled to be sent today to House Budget Chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa), Young and Oberstar are asking for $50 billion in fiscal 2004 for federal highway and mass-transit programs. The White House has asked for about $36 billion.

The proposed funding boost and tax increase come as the White House and, to a lesser extent, the House Republican leadership are attempting to restrain federal spending while at the same time pushing Bush’s $726 billion tax cut.

Recognizing those circumstances, Young has already begun lobbying the White House and his own leadership to boost support for his plan, which he hopes to have on the House floor before the August recess.

Young met with White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, a former Transportation Secretary, in December and has had further discussions with administration officials since then.

Republican panel members said Young seems well-aware of the political minefield that awaits him.

“He’s approaching it very carefully, which may not be characteristic of him,” said Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), a Transportation panel member.

At the same time, Young has worked to solidify support on his own panel in anticipation of a floor fight with conservatives and others who might oppose his plan. He is helped on that front by the fact that, with 75 members, his panel is the largest in the House, giving Young a huge potential bloc of votes heading into negotiations with GOP leaders.

To that end, Young and his top committee aides are pressuring Republican panel members to sign on to his proposals right away, according to GOP sources. Aides have suggested that lawmakers who don’t support the the Alaskan’s efforts could lose funding for favored road projects, said one GOP source close to the issue.

Several Republicans said that Young was seeking to duplicate the feats of former Transportation Chairman Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), who was legendary for bucking his own leadership and baldly threatening lawmakers in order to secure support for massive highway bills.

But some observers believe Young comes up short in any comparison with his predecessor. In the eyes of some Republican critics, Shuster was smoother than Young as a political infighter and prepared his attack more thoroughly when seeking to take on party leaders.

“At least you when you were getting worked over by Shuster, you knew you were getting worked over by a professional,” said a Republican source who has experienced both.

Though he may not yet be Shuster’s equal, several lawmakers said Young knows what buttons to push.

“He can be very persuasive, and he has a number of weapons in his arsenal,” said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), a panel member who supports Young’s efforts to boost highway funding. “Obviously Members would be wise not to intentionally displease him.”

Beyond the White House and the House leadership, Young will also have to persuade other powerful Republicans not to rebel against his proposal. Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) would likely have an interest in shaping the plan, as might Energy and Commerce Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.).

Though he shares Young’s concerns about inadequate highway funding, Tauzin said the way the Alaskan is proposing to address the issue “would be very controversial,” adding that he believed “now is not the time” for a gas-tax increase.

In order to soften the blow for lawmakers who are wary of voting for any type of tax hike, Young and other supporters of the plan emphasize on the semantic level that, because the proceeds go directly into the highway trust fund rather than general revenue, the gas levy can be viewed as something akin to a user fee rather than a traditional tax.

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