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Senate Democrats Crafting Own Plan to Cut Gas Prices

The finger-pointing persisted Tuesday as lawmakers and the president bounced rhetoric against each other to gain a leg up on the slowing economy and rising gasoline prices.

Senate Democrats responded Tuesday to a volley of criticism from President Bush on the troubled economy. Led by Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), Democrats proclaimed that they would have their own gas relief plan, possibly by the end of this week.

In a morning press conference, President Bush called out Congress for trying to introduce legislation that would tax oil companies and suggested he was open to a “gas tax” holiday this summer. Bush said Democrats are seeking solutions to the high gasoline prices that would only further increase fuel costs.

Bush also raised the prospect, once again, of opening Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling in order to bump up domestic oil production.

The issue has long been a political lightning rod, and it was thought dead-on-arrival with the election of the Democratic Congressional majority. Bush also encouraged Congress to allow oil refineries to be built on former military bases.

“I will tell you this, that if Congress is truly interested in solving the problem, they can send the right signal by saying we’re going to explore for oil and gas in the U.S. territories, starting with ANWR,” Bush said, adding “I proposed, and you might remember, taking some abandoned military bases and providing regulatory relief so we can build new refineries.”

Schumer said Bush and Congressional Republicans are unwilling to allow oil companies to take a hit for the high gas prices.

Schumer also took shot at Bush for suggesting ANWR should be opened to oil exploration. The New York senator said exploration there would “in 20 years reduce gasoline prices by one penny.”

Democrats have long opposed oil exploration in ANWR for fear of the environmental effect. Some Democratic lawmakers are also skeptical that there is enough oil in the region to reduce costs in the long run.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) listed four proposals that may be included in a Democratic plan to reduce gas prices: demand that the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries raise its production level, establish a Justice Department task force that would look into gas gouging, stop adding to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and attempt to prevent market speculation.

But Bush dismissed the idea of halting deposits in the oil reserve, which has been endorsed by both Democrats and Republicans, as ineffective. “I don’t think you’d get any benefits from making the decision,” he said.

Schumer would not release any of the fine print of the potential Democratic plan to reduce prices at the pump. He said he expected the plan would be finalized by the end of the week.

As the Democrats struggle with a gasoline price resolution, they are setting up an additional fight over the war supplemental bill. Members have speculated that the supplemental would include such domestic goodies as unemployment benefits, a summer youth employment program and infrastructure improvements, among other things.

The president has threatened a veto if Congress attaches domestic spending to the supplemental and if the proposal goes above his $108 billion ceiling.

On Tuesday morning, Schumer took his most aggressive tone to date, saying the supplemental bill “would force the Iraqis to pay” for their reconstruction cost. He added that the president’s call not to include domestic spending in the must-pass bill “is out of touch with Americans,” as the country faces an uncertain economic future.

“The truth is the president has closed his eyes and put his hands over his ears to these crises,” Schumer said. “The problem is that the president is just plain wrong in how to address these problems. I don’t think the president understands what the public is facing.”

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