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Truckers Protest On Capitol Hill

The price of oil on world markets slid further back Thursday from its nine-year highs on expectations that OPEC will soon increase production. But pump prices in the United States are still heading up.

Diesel fuel has jumped 20 cents this year, to a nationwide average of $1.50 a gallon.

That has America's truckers asking the government for relief.

For the second time in less than a month, independent truckers have rallied at the Capitol and all around Washington in search of some help for a truckload of problems that threaten their livelihood.

It's not just mom and pop truckers. Big haulers are also feeling the fuel pinch and eventually, they say, so will consumers.

Walter McCormick of the American Trucking Association says, "Everything a consumer buys is delivered by truck. And we're getting killed. And so if we are getting killed...if we are feeling the storm. It's headed for you."

CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr reports that so far, consumers have not felt the squeeze. Companies have been swallowing the price hikes. Airlines, for example, say a $4.5 billion increase in fuel costs will wipe out all of last year's profits. Yet consumers have rebelled against higher fares.

Peter Morici, of the Economic Strategy Institute says, "I don't believe that the higher oil prices will have much of an effect on consumer prices across the board. Competition and new technology have inoculated the U.S. economy from the adverse effects of spikes in oil prices."

Truckers could feel some relief if OPEC countries agree to increase oil production later this month.

But truckers want the government to help now by rolling back gasoline taxes. Both parties have listened intently to the truckers complaints, yet neither has mustered the political will to do much about them.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association wants the federal government to enact a mandatory fuel surcharge.

The charges would be passed directly to customers under a formula set by regulators. Although some drivers have attempted to impose fuel charges on their own, “the shippers say `Pound sand,’” said Jim Johnston, president of the group, which was founded in response to the Arab oil embargo of 1973

CBS News Correspondent Bill Plante reports public frustration over the cost of gas has led to political finger pointing and a search for someone to blame. "The American people are paying almost $2 a gallon for gas while the Clinton administration is asleep at the wheel, said Rep. George Radanovich, R-Calif.

A trucker rally on Feb. 22 brought 283 truckers to Washington from the northeastern United States. On Thursday, organizers obtained permits for up to 2,500 demonstrators at two sites, but just five trucks were allowed on the Capitol grounds.

Truckers parked their trailers at various locations surrounding the National Mall and brought hundres of tractor cabs into Washington from six different routes through Maryland and Virginia.

Republicans are blasting the administration's energy policy. "We've seen six years of laxity, as far as a foreign policy, with countries we have helped, such as Kuwait and Mexico and the bailout that we did there. Those countries certainly are turning on us when it comes to OPEC's rationing of fuel," said House speaker Dennis Hastert.

The truckers' group has found some members of Congress supportive of their efforts.

Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., is seeking an emergency appropriation of $100 million to help owner operators and a suspension on federal diesel taxes retroactive to Jan 1. "Costs are threatening to ruin (truckers) financially and put them out of business," said Torricelli.

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., has introduced a bill that would repeal the diesel tax at the refinery level.

President Clinton acknowledged Thursday that while he hopes oil producing countries will move to lower gasoline and oil prices, there is more the United States can do in the meantime.

The president also said continued instability in the oil market could end up "cratering the economies of other countries and hurting ours."

©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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