Vulnerable Democrats, already biting their nails about the cost of cap-and-trade and healthcare legislation, are blanching at the idea that the House could take up a gas tax.
Democratic leaders have tried to assure them that the proposals of House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) won't be coming to the floor. But Democratic members from conservative districts are watching warily.
The budget Congress passed earlier this year included $324 billion for transportation, but Oberstar will soon roll out a transportation bill that could require revenue beyond what the 18.4-cent gas tax can provide.
Oberstar has been talking about a $450 billion to $500 billion transportation bill. The difference would have to be made up with some sort of revenue boost, such as a gas tax or a "vehicle miles traveled" tax that brings in more money.
"We may end up with a proposal to increase the gas tax. We may try another route, like a vehicle miles traveled tax," said Oberstar spokesman Jim Berard, stressing that the House Ways and Means Committee has jurisdiction over how to find the money.
Failure to find more money, he said, simply kicks the problem down the road and makes it more expensive to fix.
But President Obama has opposed a gas tax increase. And Democratic aides say the White House has been recommending a two-year extension that doesn't raise the gas tax.
But Oberstar has shown he's willing to spar with the White House when it comes to highways and taxes. After White House press secretary Robert Gibbs slapped down a suggestion by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to look at a miles-traveled tax, Oberstar deemed the White House tax critics "know-nothings."
He added to an interviewer, "I've got news for you. Transportation policy isn't going to be written in the press room of the White House."
"The sentiment people left with is that a gas tax is not going to happen," said a Democratic leadership aide.
Rep. Jason Altmire (Pa.), a centrist Democrat on the Transportation Committee, said it's Obama's opposition that takes the gas tax off the table.
But another Transportation Committee member noted that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups are supporting the bill, and sees that blunting the "tax and spend" allegations that critics fear.
"I think it's a real possibility," the committee member said. "It's a sellable business issue."
Rep. John Salazar (D-Colo.), a former Transportation Committee member from a conservative district, said he fears a gas tax would trip up an economy that's still stumbling.
"I think it would bother most Americans during this economic downturn," Salazar said. "We need to get the economy started."