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Congress To President: Fix It

Republicans said they wanted to "send a message" to OPEC oil producers. Democrats called it meaningless "feel good fluff."

But in the end, all but a handful of House members - Republicans and Democrats alike - voted for a bill Wednesday that both sides acknowledged would do little to help Americans deal with the high cost of oil, or lower prices.

Instead, the vote may have demonstrated how little power Congress has to address the soaring oil and gasoline prices that grip the nation, much less influence foreign oil production plans.

The legislation, although characterized by some lawmakers as tepid and inconsequential, passed the House 382-38, marking the first congressional response to the tripling of oil prices over the past 14 months.

The bill, titled the Oil Price Reduction Act, simply requires the White House to review pricing practices of the 11-member Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and the president to work with other nations to restrict military assistance against countries found to be engaged in petroleum price fixing.

CBS News Capitol Hill Correspondent Bob Fuss reports the original bill written in committee included instructing the president to cut off foreign aid funds for nations that don't lower oil prices, and authority to sell off from the oil reserves to lower prices. However, all of that was taken out by nervous GOP leadership and so nothing meaningful was left.

Nevertheless, it was touted by supporters as a "wakeup call" and a "clear message" to the Clinton administration and OPEC, which meets next Monday to consider new oil production levels, that this country is angry over the run-up in oil prices.

It "spotlights OPEC's price-fixing activities," declared Rep. Benjamin Gilman, R-N.Y., the measure's chief sponsor.

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., ridiculed the measure as "feel good legislation" that does little beyond requiring reports - documents, he added mockingly, that "already have them quaking in Kuwait and quivering in Venezuela."

But when it came time to vote, Frank cast a "present" - not wanting to endorse the legislation, but also not eager to be seen voting on the wrong side in the oil cartel versus American consumer debate.

There were 187 Democrats who voted with Republicans for the legislation, including some who were highly critical of the bill during a two-hour debate.

"Sometimes people laugh at Congress. This is a day for laughing," Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, declared, chastising the Republican majority for pushing the "meaningless" legislation, which he earlier in a news release described as "feel good fluff." Still, Frost voted for the bill.

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, were planning a largely symbolic vote of their own on a proposed "gas tax holiday," possibly early nxt week, in an apparent attempt by the GOP leadership to try to gain some political advantage on a high-profile pocketbook issue.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., this week quietly filed two gasoline tax bills - one to suspend the 4.3 cent-a-gallon increase that Congress approved in 1993, and another to suspend the entire 18.4 cent federal levy - with a test vote planned for early next week.

Although the Senate cannot initiate tax legislation, the vote could revive efforts to cut the federal gasoline tax. A tax rollback recently ran into trouble in the House, where some lawmakers said it would take too much money away from highway construction.

Both sides used Wednesday's House debate for partisan attacks over the conduct of America's energy policy.

The bill will show OPEC "that not all branches of this government are asleep at the wheel," said Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., accusing the Clinton administration of sitting by idly for 18 months as prices soared. Other GOP lawmakers accused the White House of imposing an energy policy that has stifled domestic oil production.

Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, the majority whip, accused the administration of "tin cup diplomacy, running around begging OPEC to open their valves" while accusing the White House of ignoring domestic oil producers.

Democrats shot back that it has been the Republican majority in Congress that has blocked legislation promoting energy conservation and more fuel-efficient automobiles, and several years ago wanted to close down the Energy Department.

"We know price gouging, price fixing is going on," said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. "You're telling [the administration] to do what they already are doing."

DeFazio questioned why Republicans weren't considering a ban on Alaska oil exports, a drawdown of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve or creation of a heating oil reserve in the Northeast - all measures strongly opposed by the oil industry.

©2000 CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report

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