Gas rebate plan draws extensive criticism


Published: Monday, May 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, April 30, 2006 at 11:48 p.m.
WASHINGTON - The plan by Senate Republicans to mail out $100 checks to soothe taxpayers' misery about gas prices is drawing scorn from the very people it was intended to help.
Aides for several Republican senators reported a surge of calls and e-mail messages from constituents ridiculing the rebate as a paltry and transparent attempt to pander to voters in advance of the midterm elections in November.
"The conservatives think it is socialist bunk, and the liberals think it is conservative trickery," said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, noting that the criticism was coming from across the ideological spectrum.
Angry constituents have asked, "Do you think we are prostitutes? Do you think you can buy us?" said another Republican senator's aide, who was granted anonymity to discuss the feedback openly because the senator had publicly supported the plan.
Conservative talk radio hosts have been particularly vocal. "What kind of insult is this?" Rush Limbaugh asked on his radio program Friday. "Instead of buying us off and treating us like we're a bunch of whores, just solve the problem." In commentary on Fox News Sunday, Brit Hume called the idea "silly."
The backlash comes at a time when the rising price of gas has put the public in a volatile mood and when polls show cynicism about Congress at its highest level since 1994.
Still, Eric Ueland, chief of staff to Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, the Republican leader, said the rebate was an important short-term step as part of a broader array of measures that Republicans say began with last year's energy bill. Constituents "believe government ought to step up to the plate rather than loll around in the dugout," Ueland wrote in an e-mail Sunday.
As members of Congress returned from their spring recess where they heard earfuls about gas prices above $3 a gallon, both parties have raced to propose solutions that might take effect before the fall elections. Democrats were pushing for a 60-day suspension of the federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per-gallon, and the Senate Republican leadership settled on the rebate as a preferable alternative.
Senate Republican leadership and finance committee aides said Republicans feared that oil companies, which pay the tax, would not pass on the savings from the tax suspension, or that the laws of supply and demand would push the price up once again. And then there was the likely opposition of House Republicans, who have been reluctant to jeopardize the flow of the gas-tax revenue to the highway trust fund that underwrites road and bridge projects.
"Our folks thought it might amount to nothing for consumers," said one aide who was granted anonymity in order to discuss internal leadership deliberations.
The $100 figure was determined by Frist's office, which calculated that the average driver would pay about $11 per month in gas taxes over nine months. (Taxpayers with adjusted gross incomes above about $146,000 would be ineligible for the checks.)
The rebate was the signature element of a broader plan announced Thursday that included new incentives for refineries and hybrid cars as well as drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and an accounting change that would force oil companies to pay higher taxes on fuel sold from inventories.
The proposal would also give the executive branch new authority to set fuel standards for cars, an idea that will get a hearing in the House this week.
David Winston, a Republican pollster who advises the Senate Republican leadership, called the rebate plan an intuitive way to show voters Republicans were on their side. "It is like putting the American family budget ahead of oil company profits," he said. "How do you help the American families out? Well, give them some money."
But instead disapproval started flowing in almost as soon as the idea surfaced, aides in several Republican offices said. One senior aide to a Southern lawmaker said the calls were surprisingly harsh, with those weighing in quite "hacked off." Some complained that the rebate would amount to only two fill-ups at the gas station.
Even though some voters have been outspoken in their opposition to the $100 rebate, Democrats still want credit for being the first to think of putting money back in taxpayers' pockets. A few days before the Republicans went public with their plan, Rep. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., had proposed a $500 rebate plan, a figure that she said was more commensurate with what higher gas prices will cost Americans this year.
She also assailed Republicans for linking their rebate to opening the arctic refuge to oil drilling.
Republicans know the Alaskan drilling "is highly controversial and not going to happen," Stabenow said. "I question their sincerity in putting this forward." When the Republican program might reach the Senate floor is still uncertain. Frist had initially suggested he might try to attach the plan to the emergency-spending bill the Senate is debating, but aides said that is now less likely and that Republicans might ultimately bring their proposal forward on its own.
In interviews on television news programs Sunday, several Republicans emphasized the need for long-term solutions and played down the rebates. "I don't think much about the $100 rebate," Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., said on CNN's "Late Edition." "We're going to have to produce more domestic oil, natural gas. We're going to have to build pipelines, liquefied natural gas plants."
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, struck a similar note on the CBS program "Face the Nation." "I don't think it's a real answer," she said. "It's a temporary Band-Aid. I don't think that it's, again, the long-range solution."
But in his e-mail, Ueland, the chief of staff to Frist, dismissed the allegations of pandering as the inevitable price of taking any action that would respond to constituents' immediate complaints. "It's the way of the world to dog Washington when members respond to constituent concerns, but to be responsive is part of how the system is designed."

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