Senate Republicans unveiled a proposal yesterday to soften the blow of rapidly rising petrol prices by giving taxpayers a US$100 ($160) cheque, suspending a retail fuel tax and opening an Alaska wildlife refuge to oil drilling.
With petrol prices above US$3 a gallon in many US cities, pump prices were the main topic of discussion on both sides of Congress as lawmakers fretted that voters will vent their rage at high pump prices in the upcoming November elections.
The Republican package mostly cobbles together old proposals like drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), incentives to build refineries, and suspending filling of the nation's emergency crude oil stockpile.
The bill would give all but the wealthiest US taxpayers a US$100 cheque to ease the burden of high pump prices. The Bush Administration distributed US$600 tax rebate cheques in 2001.
"This is a short-term important plaster to a wound that is bleeding and it is beginning to haemorrhage," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.
Minority Leader Harry Reid said US consumers did not need a Government handout, and several Democrats said that including the wildlife refuge drilling idea would doom the plan to failure.
The US$100 cheque is "a token gesture connected to a policy they know they can't pass - drilling in ANWR", said Senator Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat.
She has an alternate proposal that would distribute cheques for US$500 - the amount that the average family will spend in extra energy expenses this year, she said.
Opening ANWR is a key part of Bush's energy policy which has been repeatedly blocked in the US Senate.
"We're going to have a fight over ANWR because it's very important," said Senator Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican, pointing to the refuge's potential 16 billion barrels of oil.
The Gas Price Relief and Rebate Act of 2006 was attached this week to a controversial bill being debated on the Senate floor to provide emergency funds for the war in Iraq. The bill could also be considered as stand-alone legislation.
Frist said if Democrats wanted the Senate to consider a plan to tax record oil company profits, they would have to consider the Republican plan too.
Environmental groups said the money would just end up back in the coffers of big oil companies like Exxon Mobil.