Sec. LaHood: Gas tax likely to see debate in Congress soon

A federal gas tax hike is likely to appear on lawmakers' radars again this year as they search for new ways to fund the country's transportation programs, the department's secretary suggested on Monday.

During a summit in Fort Worth, Texas, Transportation chief Ray LaHood predicted the federal government's gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon would not be enough to offset the nearly $500-million gap between how much revenue is available and how much money the department hopes to receive next year.

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That dilemma, he said, would present Congress with two choices: Cut some programs or consider increasing fees, including the federal gas tax -- an idea LaHood discussed, but did not explicitly endorse, during Monday's conference.

"To index the federal fuel tax, that's something Congress is going to have to decide. As we get into the reauthorization bill, the debate will be how we fund all the things we want to do," he said, as reported by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

"The idea of indexing the taxes that are collected at the gas pump is something I believe Congress will debate," he added. "When the gas tax was raised in 1992 or 1993, in the Clinton administration, there was a big debate whether it should be indexed. At that time, they thought there'd be a sufficient amount of money collected. Now we know that isn't the case. That is one way to keep up with the decline in driving, and more fuel-efficient cars."

LaHood took careful note to stress Congress, not the Obama administration, would have to drive debate on a possible gas tax hike.

However, previous attempts to raise the country's at-the-pump fee have encountered stiff congressional opposition from both parties.

When House Democrats on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee proposed such an increase earlier this year, vulnerable Blue Dog Democrats balked, putting the party's leadership in a bind.

A number of Republicans reacted similarly, and time has unlikely abated their concerns.

Many in the GOP have signaled a strong disapproval for a number of similar fees Democrats have tried to introduce this year to pay for healthcare reform and a troop increase in Afghanistan, among other legislative efforts, further making a gas tax hike difficult in 2009 or 2010.