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Reid Is Likely to Keep Gas Tax Out of Debate

Legislation on Increasing Prices Will Sidestep Issue That Splits Clinton, Obama

When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) rolls out his party’s much anticipated gas price legislation later this week, one element that won’t be included is any sort of “gas tax holiday” provision.

Despite calls for a temporary gas tax repeal from the presidential campaign trail — and from some on Capitol Hill — Reid is expected to strenuously avoid bringing that issue into the debate, both to keep the Senate out of the Democratic presidential nomination fight and to sidestep splits within his own party.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) has called for a temporary gas tax repeal, as has Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — although unlike Clinton, he would not pay for it through a new short-term tax on oil company profits.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) prefers providing the public with a tax rebate to help out amid soaring energy and food costs.

Leadership aides say the issue is much more local for Reid: There is no consensus within his Democratic Conference in favor of a tax repeal.

“I don’t think it’s so much [the fight between Clinton and Obama] as the fact that the caucus is divided” that will ultimately drive Reid’s handling of the issue, a senior Democratic aide said Monday.

Reid aides were tight-lipped about the contents of a gas price bill, but leadership sources acknowledged that Reid would prefer to keep the Senate out of the fight between Clinton and Obama.

For much of the year, Reid has been able to avoid putting his Conference in a difficult spot in relation to the presidential nomination fight, in part because Clinton and Obama have not sparred over issues that were front and center in the Senate.

In the few cases in which the two Democratic contenders have taken positions on legislation before the chamber — including two anti-earmark provisions backed by Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) –– Obama and Clinton found themselves on the same side of the issue and the opposite side from Reid and most of their Democratic colleagues.

But with gas prices soaring as the summer driving season approaches, the House and Senate have begun the nearly annual ritual of partisan sniping over whose plan would bring relief to taxpayers the quickest.

With Obama and Clinton taking markedly different positions and using that split as a centerpiece of their campaigns, the Senate floor could become the center stage in the Democratic primary fight.

Leadership aides have sought to downplay the significance of the Clinton-Obama problem for Reid, stressing that both parties are divided between those who support some sort of gas tax suspension and those who oppose it, either over fiscal grounds or because of potential damage to the highway trust fund.

Reid has indicated he would like to have a vote on gas legislation after the Iraq War supplemental is completed and before the Memorial Day recess. But Clinton, Obama, McCain or one of their surrogates could attempt to amend the bill, potentially forcing a floor vote that would be politically difficult for lawmakers and result in one of the Democratic contenders likely coming out a loser.

As a result, Reid could be forced to use the sort of parliamentary tactics he has used against Republicans this year — such as filing for cloture to limit amendments — to forestall a floor fight between Obama and Clinton if either lawmaker attempts to use the Democratic bill as a vehicle for the gas tax proposal.

Democratic leadership aides, who refused to discuss “hypotheticals” regarding potential amendments, were quick to point to Republican divisions and argued that it is unclear whether Republicans will ultimately agree to begin a debate on gas price legislation because of their own conflicts.

“If Republicans want to have a debate on gas prices, then we’ll have a debate on gas prices,” a Reid aide said Monday.

Republicans rejected the notion they would block a gas price debate. One senior GOP leadership aide contended that because Republicans, unlike Democrats, have settled on a presidential nominee, it is likely even the most ardent GOP opponents to a gas tax holiday will back McCain if he seeks to add his proposal as an amendment.

Additionally, the source said that with Democrats as divided as Republicans — and almost certainly unwilling to back a proposal sponsored by the GOP presidential nominee — many Republicans could see it as a “free vote” since it would not muster 60 votes.

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