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Tax Rollback Strongly Opposed

The first hurdle is out of the way, but supporters of legislation that would temporarily roll back 4.3 cents of the federal gas tax still face strong opposition from most Democrats and some Republicans.

Even if the bill passes the Senate in the coming weeks, it faces uncertain prospects in the House, and even proponents acknowledge it offers modest relief at the gas pump at best. Still Republican backers say it's better than nothing.

"It represents us doing something and the administration doing nothing," said Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska.

Republicans, led by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, are making the issue election-year fodder, referring to it as the "Gore tax'' because Vice President Al Gore cast the 1993 tie-breaking Senate vote to increase the gas tax by 4.3 cents a gallon.

GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush favors "efforts to lower gas prices'' but is still reviewing the temporary repeal, spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said.

Substantive action on the measure was put off until next week at the earliest, despite an 86-11 Senate vote Thursday to proceed.

Most Democrats and some Republicans who oppose the repeal could have tried to muster the votes to kill the bill. But they opted to let the bill remain alive, giving themselves time to offer alternatives or amendments.

"I could not be more strongly in opposition to repealing the gas tax,'' said Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. "I think this ought to be debated.''

The legislation pushed by Lott, R-Miss., would eliminate the 4.3-cent-a-gallon tax for the rest of the year and suspend the entire 18.4-cent federal gas tax until January if average prices for regular unleaded gas top $2 a gallon.

"We need to do something on an immediate basis so people aren't hammered,'' Lott argued.

The debate came a few days after the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries agreed to boost production by 1.7 million barrels of oil a day, which could trigger a slow price decline to follow the recent drop from $34 a barrel a few weeks ago to $26.45 a barrel this week. U.S. officials say the crude price could drop another $2.50 a barrel by late summer.

Opponents to Lott's bill, including many Republicans, said the proposal would jeopardize about $7 billion a year in money for highway, bridge and mass transit projects that are high priorities on Capitol Hill. Lott, however, said his bill would replace the lost money out of projected budget surpluses.

Other critics said the tax relief would be too meager - a motorist who drove 12,000 miles a year at 20 miles per gallon would realize savings of only $26 - and there was no way to guarantee that oil companies would actually pass on the tax cut to consumers. Democrats said blaming Gore appeared to be the GOP's main intent.

"Reducing the price of fuel by 4.3 cents a gallon for part of the year isn't the answer,'' said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev. "It's quite clear that repeal of the gas tax is really an effort to make a political statement.''

Although Democrats talked about reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil, a renewed push for energy efficiency and better development of alternatives such as solar power, Republicans contend that the long-term answer involves tax breaks to boost U.S. production, opening more federal lands to oil exploration and a get-tough negotiating stance with OPEC.