Lawmakers get earful on gas prices

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said anxiety over fuel oil costs is at crisis proportions in her state. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said oil-drilling advocates weighed in from the sidelines as she marched in a Fourth of July parade.

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., heard it even closer to home, from his own teenager.

“My daughter said, ‘Dad, what are you going to do about gas prices?'” Casey said.

After spending a week in their states and districts with angry and frightened consumers, many lawmakers have returned to Capitol Hill convinced that Congress cannot afford a prolonged stalemate over energy policy.

“This is the No.1 issue on people's minds, very clearly,” said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., one of a bipartisan group of 10 senators who met Tuesday morning to pursue ideas on a compromise energy plan that could be enacted this year.

With Republicans pushing for more domestic oil and gas production and many Democrats focusing on alternative energy sources, finding a consensus would not be easy, congressional leaders acknowledge.

Democratic leaders in the Senate also are not ready to embrace the idea of a bipartisan compromise on energy legislation, in part out of concern about adopting a position at odds with their presumptive presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.

Obama so far has espoused the traditional Democratic view that domestic drilling is not the answer to high prices – a view he reiterated in a new television advertisement that began airing Tuesday in four battleground states.

“This notion that somehow there's this acre of offshore that George W. Bush is holding back, that if Congress would just let him sign the executive order that would produce the oil to bring down gas prices,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat. “Doesn't that sound like a little bit of fantasy land?”

But with the public in an uproar over the cost of gas and fuel oil, many lawmakers in the House and Senate said Congress, with approval ratings at new lows, cannot stand by and simply trade accusations over who is responsible.

Neither Republicans nor Democrats are being spared in the minds of voters, one said.

“They blame ‘the government,'” said Collins, who said that many Maine residents were panicked about the possibility of paying $5,000 to heat their homes this winter.

She and other lawmakers said they could see the contours of a deal that included new incentives for renewable fuels, more freedom for drilling in waters off states that sanction the drilling and a potential crackdown on speculation in the oil-futures market.