When it comes to gasoline prices, every politician is a populist, especially in an election year. And in the current scramble to ease motorists' pain over high prices, ideology has taken a back seat to the need for immediate results - or at least the need to be seen trying.
Republicans, who tend to blame the price spike on market forces, have jumped in with a range of proposals, one of which ran counter to GOP orthodoxy and died quickly: a Senate Republican proposal to change the way businesses are taxed on their inventories. The plan would have cost corporations billions of dollars, and helped pay for another proposal - $100 rebate checks to taxpayers to offset the cost of gas. The backlash from Corporate America was fierce, carrying a tinge of insult toward members normally seen as allies.
The $100 rebate plan, crafted by Senate GOP leader Bill Frist, also died amid widespread ridicule - including from Republicans - that it was a gimmick that did nothing to address the long-term problem.
Democrats, like Republicans, have held their share of press conferences at gas stations lately, blaming the GOP for the crisis and pitching their solutions: an end to tax breaks for the oil industry, higher fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles, and more research into alternative energy. But Democrats are also anxious to see short-term relief for motorists, a point that conservatives see as putting them at odds with environmentalists who favor higher gas prices as a way to discourage driving.
"What both parties face is a conundrum where the political marketplace is demanding immediate results, but both parties tend to have longer-term solutions - whether it's on the demand side for Democrats or the supply side for Republicans," says Michael Franc, a congressional expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
Still, with both houses of Congress in Republican hands, the GOP faces higher stakes. Wednesday, House Republicans planned to bring an anti-price-gouging bill to the floor for a vote. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Heather Wilson (R) of New Mexico, who is fighting for reelection, would direct the Federal Trade Commission to define price gouging. Currently, there is no federal definition. The House was also scheduled to vote Wednesday on legislation aimed at giving the oil industry incentives to build more refineries.
For now, though, as summer driving season is set to begin, members of Congress are scratching their heads for ways to bring some immediate relief. The head of ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson, did not offer much hope in a CNN interview Tuesday. "There's not anything that can be done that is going to change this situation overnight," said the new CEO of the nation's largest oil company. "It's all about supply and demand fundamentals."
To Republican House members looking for signs that gas prices aren't going to kill them in November, a new poll conducted for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report by RT Strategies found that the cost of gas is not a top voting issue for either party. Voters were asked, "which one issue will matter most in deciding how you will vote for US House?" Overall, the top issue was jobs and the economy (19 percent), followed by Iraq (16). Gasoline prices tied for third place at 12 percent, along with immigration and healthcare.
Still, political analysts say it's too soon to know how gas prices will affect the November midterms, and so members can't take any chances.
"Everybody has to worry about anything that people are talking about on a daily basis," says Bernadette Budde, a political analyst for the Business Industry Political Action Committee. "But how will voters assess blame? Will every incumbent end up paying the price or just incumbents who fail to talk about it or incumbents who did not vote to open ANWR [the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge] and or those who have not supported exploration in the Gulf [of Mexico]?"
Republican pollster David Winston sees three problems with the current situation. First, the last gas spike was less than a year ago. Second, as with the last gas spike, the oil industry is posting huge profits. And third, the announcement of a $400 million retirement package for the recently departed head of ExxonMobil struck many Americans as out of line.
"This year, the blame has shifted," says Mr. Winston. "There is a sense of price gouging, there is a sense of oil companies taking advantage of the situation."
Americans want every idea on the table, he says. And they're looking for "very aggressive hearings" of oil industry executives. "They want to hear these guys taken to task," Winston says.