Vulnerable Democrats press Pelosi to reverse rejection of gas tax holiday
Embattled Democrats are pushing back on Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) decision to reject a gas tax holiday, urging party leaders to reconsider a proposal as lawmakers take a beating over sky-high gas prices.
The grumbling is especially pronounced among lawmakers facing tough reelection contests in November, who are eager to bring home a policy they say would provide tangible and immediate savings for drivers at the pump.
As the summer driving season quickly approaches, they’re not disguising their dismay with their own leadership’s argument that the tax holiday would prove ineffective.
“I guess they’re focused on things that would be helpful, but they’re longer-term. And I’m focused on the shorter term. And I think that if they came to my district they would see that we have a short-term need that needs to be addressed,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.).
Slotkin acknowledged there’s no silver bullet at Congress’s disposal to deal with high prices. But suspending the federal gas tax, currently 18.4 cents per gallon, would be an efficient and effective way to lower costs quickly, she said.
“It’s not perfect, what I’m proposing, but it is something,” Slotkin said. “And if you are from a state where people drive 40 miles one-way to work, you’re interested in whatever helps.”
Rep. Chris Pappas (D-N.H.), another supporter of the gas tax holiday, echoed those concerns, characterizing the proposal as “the most immediate way that we can deliver some much-needed relief.”
In states like his, where the economy leans heavily on tourism, he said the tax suspension would have an additional benefit because it would “encourage people to travel this summer.”
“For a tourist-heavy state like New Hampshire, we want people to continue to come,” he said. “So I’m disappointed that [the tax holiday] wasn’t included in the framework.”
President Biden and Democratic leaders are scrambling for ways to rein in gas prices as the average price per gallon sits well above $4, according to the Energy Information Administration. The inflationary trend was only exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.
Pelosi has been cold to the idea of a gas tax holiday, and this week she told the Democratic caucus behind closed doors that leaders would not be pushing for one, according to several lawmakers in the meeting. Her position is consistent with the White House, which is concerned that even a temporary elimination of the federal gas tax would steal much-needed revenues from the highway trust fund, which goes towards infrastructure maintenance, and would provide savings too small to resonate with disgruntled drivers.
On Thursday, Pelosi acknowledged “some interest” among Democrats for the tax holiday, but rejected the idea as both ineffective and too expensive.
“We had no evidence to think that the oil companies would pass that on to the consumer,” she told reporters in the Capitol. “So the question is, is it worth having to go get money, to return to cover the shortfall in the trust fund, in order to get a break to the Big Oil companies?”
Democratic leaders are charging ahead with a different proposal championed by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) that would empower state and federal officials to clamp down on the price setting tactics of the nation’s oil companies, which they say are guilty of “price gouging.”
The announcement has frustrated the champions of the gas-tax suspension, who say they’ll continue to push Pelosi for its consideration.
“I agree with her on almost everything, but not this,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.).
Kildee conceded that suspending the federal tax alone would not provide an enormous savings at the pump. But coupled with other strategies — including state-level gas-tax holidays; new scrutiny on oil companies; Biden’s move to release millions of gallons of oil from the nation’s emergency stockpiles; and the administration’s recent decision to allow sales of high-ethanol gas through the summer — it would add up to real relief.
“That doesn’t mean that we don’t put some heat on the companies,” Kildee said, endorsing the leadership proposal. “But we put the heat on the companies with some leverage, and that is: We’re coming to the table with a way to reduce the price at the pump; we’re doing our part, we’re going to force you to do yours.”
The lawmakers pushing the gas tax holiday tend to represent a group that’s fighting for political survival in November.
The legislation they’re championing is sponsored by Rep. Tom O’Halleran (D-Ariz.), whose seat is considered “likely” to flip to Republicans, according to the running analysis of the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election handicapper.
Slotkin and Kildee are in “toss up” races, as are three other co-sponsors of the bill: Reps. Angie Craig (Minn.), Matt Cartwright (Pa.) and Kim Schrier (Wash.). Two other co-sponsors — Reps. Josh Harder (Calif.) and Dina Titus (Nev.) — are also considered by Cook to be vulnerable.
A similar debate is stirring among Democrats in the Senate, where a handful of threatened lawmakers — led by Sens. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) and Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) — are also pressing party leaders to consider their bill to suspend the federal gas tax amid the price spike.
Joining Pelosi this week, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) promoted the Cantwell-Pallone approach as the better alternative.
“If you ask the American people, in all the survey data, what is causing the increase in gas prices, number one is market manipulation and Big Oil not giving a break,” he said. “That is what we’re focusing on.”
Republicans have not raced to endorse the tax cut, though some indicated they’d support it if Pelosi were to bring it to the floor.
“It’s certainly is something we should be looking at. There’s no question about that,” said Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.), a senior member of the Energy and Commerce Committee. “So I hope that she will change her mind and consider looking at it.”
Other Republicans, though, are opposed to the idea, calling it an election year “gimmick.” And still others said they’d happily jump on board — if Democrats were also willing to consider proposals to open larger parts of the country to oil and gas drilling.
“If you coupled suspension with expansion of domestic production, I’d think you’d have broad Republican support,” said Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.).
As Democrats face long odds of keeping control of the House in the midterms — and lawmakers face increasing pressure from constituents to tackle gas prices — some maintain that producing tangible results is more important than how it’s done.
“We’re getting a lot of calls,” said Rep. Ann Kuster (D-N.H.), another co-sponsor of O’Halleran’s bill. “And I want to get relief.”
Emily Brooks contributed reporting.
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