Behind logjam over economic remedies, a values divide in D.C.

Bush and Democrats in Congress disagree on how much onus to put on individuals vs. financial, energy industries

Robert Galbraith/Reuters
A sign shows the price of regular unleaded gasoline at a Shell station in San Francisco, Calif. Bush and Democrats in Congress disagree on how much onus to put on individuals vs. financial, energy industries.

Even before President Bush launched a broadside at Congress this week, Democratic lawmakers were scrambling to find practical answers to rising gasoline and food prices and out-of-reach mortgage and tuition bills.

The president blames Congress for blocking proposals that he says would help. These include approving oil and gas exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), building new refinery capacity, modernizing the Federal Housing Administration, and giving the government temporary authority to buy student loans.

"I've repeatedly submitted proposals to help address these problems. Yet time after time Congress chose to block them," Mr. Bush said Tuesday at a Rose Garden press conference.

Democrats shot back that Bush – and a Republican majority – had six years to solve such problems and fell short. After Democrats took control of Congress in 2007, the president refused to negotiate with the new majority, they add.

But at the heart of the impasse is a deep values divide: Should Washington bail out people who made poor decisions on their homes? Will a short-term fix for high gasoline prices this summer encourage consumption and create greater problems in the long term? And how hard should Washington hit back at banks and energy producers, viewed by some lawmakers as the problem and by others as a key part of any solution?

"Until very recently, we heard the president say: Don't worry, be happy. Everything's going to be just fine. Now all of a sudden, he's realized the problems," said Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York at a Tuesday news briefing after Bush's remarks. "The problem is … that the president is just plain wrong on how to address the many challenges we face."

The biggest disconnect between Congress and the White House is over energy policy. Democrats and a growing number of Republicans want to show voters Washington can do something to ease gas prices this summer. Lawmakers on both sides are calling on the White House to temporarily halt purchases to fill the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR).

The president says that purchases for the SPR account for only 0.1 percent of global demand. "I don't think that's going to affect price when you affect 0.1 percent," Bush said in his press briefing on Tuesday. "And I do believe it is in our national interest to get the [reserve] filled, in case there is a major disruption of crude oil around the world."

But at least 15 Republicans joined Democrats this week in calling for an immediate halt of deposits of domestic crude oil into the SPR. Democrats now say they have enough votes to override a presidential veto on this issue.

On a more conciliatory note, the president said he was open to proposals to drop the federal 18.4 cent gas tax this summer – an idea backed by presidential contenders Sens. Hillary Clinton (D) of New York and John McCain (R) of Arizona. "If it's a good idea, we embrace it," he said. Sen. Barack Obama (D) of Illinois, who opposes the plan, says it will save drivers the cost of a half a tank of gasoline at most.

Democrats quickly rejected White House calls to open ANWR for oil and gas exploration. "It's well known on both sides that it will take eight to 10 years before any oil could be produced in ANWR," says Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D) of New Mexico, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Democrats are urging energy efficiency and a price-gouging bill, so that the big oil companies can't collude. "There's too much speculation in the markets, and we believe that ought to be reined in," said Senator Schumer, chair of the Joint Economic Committee.

But it’s the need for student loans that gave Congress and the White House their first breakthrough agreement. The president wants to give the federal government temporary authority purchase federal student loans to help ease a credit crunch. A house bill sponsored by Rep. George Miller (D) of California, which passed the House on April 17 by a vote of 383-27, “we think can do the job,” the president said. The Senate passed an amended version of this bill by unanimous consent on Wednesday. The Senate bill expands eligibility to some 100,000 additional students. [Editor's note: The original version was written before the Senate vote

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