WASHINGTON - When Rep. Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican, held a town-hall meeting this week to discuss Social Security and Medicare, the session quickly turned to an entirely different subject: high gas prices.
When Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican, toured a Veteran's Affairs clinic yesterday, the first question put to her was: "What are you going to do about the high price of gasoline?"
For congressional Republicans, gas prices have suddenly become a political problem.
A growing number of GOP officials are nervous that as consumers feel the pinch at the pump, Republicans, as the party in power, will feel pain at the ballot box. And they are scrambling to find ways to respond.
"People are mad as hell," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican.
Oil prices, which hit an all-time high yesterday, and gasoline prices are expected to be top items on the agenda when Congress returns after Labor Day from its monthlong summer recess. As one of its first orders of business, the Senate will hold a hearing to examine the causes of the price increases, and oil industry executives may be summoned to testify.
"You can safely predict, with more accuracy than any TV weatherman, that the first blizzard of the year will be the blizzard of gas price legislation introduced this September when Congress comes back to town," said Stuart Roy, a former House GOP leadership aide.
But it is unclear what lawmakers can do to reduce gasoline prices in the short term - and whether voters will accept the argument that they have few tools available to provide immediate relief. "We should be nervous," said Kingston, vice chairman of the House Republican Conference.
Polls show the public blaming politicians - after oil companies and foreign oil-producing countries - for the high prices. A Harris Poll released yesterday found that Americans rank gas prices among the top five issues for the government to address. Compounding the problem for the GOP, Democrats are stepping up their efforts to spotlight fuel costs as part of their campaign to wrest control of Congress.
"When [voters] start to see that this is not the end but the beginning [of high prices], they are going to be kind of harsh," predicted Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, who has been hearing complaints from constituents this summer and expects them to intensify. Prices have hit record highs this week, reaching a nationwide average of $2.612 a gallon for self-service regular, and analysts project that oil prices will remain over $55 per barrel for the remainder of this year and next.
Republicans have been thinking about what to do about gas prices - and also how to talk about them. GOP pollster Frank Luntz said Republicans should do a better job of explaining to the public how the recently passed energy bill will eventually bring down prices by increasing supply.
That legislation - the first overhaul of national energy policy in more than a decade - offers tax breaks and other incentives to spur more production and to encourage consumers to buy fuel-efficient cars, as well as other measures aimed at diversifying domestic energy supplies and keeping prices down.
"If Republicans explain that the legislation takes time to have an impact, they're inoculated" from the political risk of sustained higher prices, Luntz said. "The only way Democrats can get an advantage on gas prices is to show that their policies would bring them down. It is not enough to blame Republicans; you need a solution."
Still, an increasing number of Republicans say that Congress needs to do more.
Many GOP lawmakers are looking to follow up on the energy bill with other measures aimed at increasing production. Backers of President Bush's long-sought goal of opening a portion of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to energy exploration hope that the high prices will spur Congress to give final approval to the drilling measure, perhaps as early as next month.
Opponents of Arctic drilling argue that it would take years to tap the oil and that proponents have exaggerated the amount of oil beneath the tundra.
When Congress returns, lawmakers are also expected to make a new push for legislation to allow states to opt out of a decades-long moratorium on new offshore oil drilling.
Some Republicans have joined Democrats in calling on Bush to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
But Bush has adamantly opposed using oil from the nation's emergency stockpile in the absence of a national security crisis, and Sen. Pete V. Domenici, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has argued that when President Bill Clinton released oil from the reserve in the summer and fall of 2000, the drop in gas prices was negligible.
"Unfortunately, this is a difficult problem that doesn't have an easy solution," Capito said. "People don't want to hear that, and I don't want to say it. But that's the truth."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.