WASHINGTON – President Bush's four-point plan offered Tuesday to help get a grip on rising gas prices opened a fount for Democrats who slammed the president and claim that this could be the election issue of the year — one that favors them.
"I think the American public on this issue, on this issue alone, may decide the election this fall, on where you stand on this issue: on whether or not you stand with those that want to see a rebate going back or whether or not you're going to protect large oil companies ... and if you're perceived as standing on that side and your up for re-election or election, then you're in trouble," said Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut.
Dodd and Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota introduced an amendment to the emergency supplemental spending bill now in the Senate that would impose a 50 percent windfall profits tax on oil company revenue derived from sales of oil at more than $40 per barrel.
Dodd said he anticipates that senators will attempt to deride this legislation, but they do so at their "own peril" because soaring gas prices will affect the 2006 election.
But Republicans countered that Democrats have obstructed efforts to up the supply of oil and for many years listened to "radical environmentalists" who forced onerous regulations on oil companies.
"The same Democrats who voted against increasing our energy supply, expanding our refining capacity and exploring alternative sources now have the audacity to point fingers and place blame. Opposing responsible plans to increase our energy supply is reckless, and Americans will pay the price at the pump this summer," said House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo.
Gas prices have doubled since Bush took office in 2001, and members of Congress returned from their Easter recess this week with the issue near the top of their agenda. With prices approaching $3 per gallon of gas, Bush said Tuesday he opposes increasing taxes on oil company profits but instead wants them to reinvest more of their profits in finding ways to reduce oil dependency.
He said that companies should also invest in new refineries, but Congress must first relax regulations on building them. The last one built in this country was more than 30 years ago, and refinery shortages are a big part of the problem, Bush said.
Bush also asked the EPA to relax fuel blend rules and reformulated gasoline regulations that are designed to alleviate local pollution but have caused shortages.
In another move intended to offer relief for high gas prices, Bush ordered a temporary halt of deliveries to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The reserve is an underground storage facility where the United States keeps about 90 days worth of oil, or 685 million barrels, in case of a catastrophic event like an oil embargo or natural disaster. The president is not expected to withdraw any reserves from the SPRO.
Trying to appease congressional leaders who suspect oil companies are unfairly raising prices, the president said he asked his Energy and Justice departments to open inquiries into whether the price of gasoline has been illegally manipulated. That move is in addition to one already by Congress that directs the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether businesses used Hurricane Katrina to manipulate gasoline supply and prices. The commission is working to meet a May 19 deadline for its report to Congress.
"Americans understand, by and large, that the price of crude oil is going up and that the prices are going up, but what they don't want and will not accept is manipulation of the market. And neither will I," Bush told an audience at the Renewable Fuels Association in Washington, D.C.
The president also notified his attorney general and the Federal Trade Commission to get in touch with state attorneys general to report price gouging and other anti-competitive practices. The move earned outright praise from Republicans and reluctant acknowledgement from Democrats.
"Price gouging, price fixing and other forms of collusion are immoral, and should be prosecuted to the full extent of federal and state law. I’m pleased that the president announced yesterday that the investigations we asked for are underway," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee.
"With his poll numbers in the low 30s and Americans struggling under the weight of record-high gas prices, President Bush has finally embraced sound Democratic proposals he once rejected," said Democratic National Committee Communications Director Karen Finney.
"These solutions were put forth by Democrats in Congress months, even years, ago but President Bush and Republicans in Congress refused to consider these alternatives until now," Finney added.
Democrats say given the president and vice president's ties to the oil industry, the price spikes should not have caught them off guard.
"This is an administration that is almost marinated in oil. One official after another has a history and background in this sector and yet, where was the Department of Energy, where was the Environmental Protection Agency, where was the Commodities Future Trading Commission at a key time in our country's energy future?" asked Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland also hit the White House with a double punch, asking what happened to the Iraqi oil some administration officials predicted would flow freely after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Now, with the war costing $10 billion a month and losing support, Mikulski said she "ain't seen no money, ain't seen no oil."
In the Senate, Democrats quickly jumped on the emergency supplemental legislation for Iraq and Hurricane Katrina relief to add at least nine amendments that would impose a bevy of penalties onto the oil companies for charging the rates they do. Among them are proposals to increase fuel economies of SUVs, promote competition in the fuel industry and investigate whether "big oil" companies should be broken up.
It's "crystal clear that the current spike in gas prices is at least partly due to an act of greed," added Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J. He said he will offer a plan to suspend the 18.4 cents-per-gallon gasoline tax for two months, with its cost financed by reducing tax breaks for the oil industry.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., spoke confidently when he blamed runaway gas prices on oil companies and said the rates go "way beyond what supply and demand would merit." Schumer, who supports increased fuel economies for cars, said even China has higher car mileage standards than the United States.
In his speech, Bush called for greater fuel efficiency, though not an increase in the corporate fuel economy standards which are set by law. During his remarks, the president won applause from his audience by saying that alternative fuels need to be harnessed and the use of gas should be reduced.
Bush also called for increased domestic oil production, including drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, something he's pushed for since he took office, but which Congress has so far refused him. Ironically, Congress approved drilling in ANWR during the Clinton administration, but President Clinton vetoed it.
Though Democrats found a great opportunity to slam the president, Bush's supporters say the minority party is wasting its breath and should be focusing not on the political gain, but the problem at hand.
“The people of America are not interested in Democrat charges against Republicans and Republican charges against Democrats. They want more resources so that the price of gasoline at the pump will come down. … And that means drilling for oil in our country and trying to make sure that we have conservation and alternative sources of energy,” said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas.
FOX News' Wendell Goler and Trish Turner and The Associated Press contributed to this report.