Chafee Votes to Keep Gas Prices High

Senate Democrats, sensing what they hope will be an opportunity to blame Republicans for the high price of gasoline, voted in unison Wednesday in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to help defeat a bill that would have streamlined the building of new refineries.

The eight committee Democrats won over liberal Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R.-R.I.), whose vote against Chairman Jim Inhofe’s Gas PRICE Act (S 1772) means Republicans will have to take other steps if they want to push a refinery bill through the Senate this year.

Inhofe (R.-Okla.) told HUMAN EVENTS he pleaded with Chafee to vote with the committee’s nine other Republicans on the measure because Democrats were opposing the bill for purely partisan reasons. In the end, however, Chafee sided with Democrats.

“I went to Lincoln Chafee,” Inhofe told HUMAN EVENTS in an exclusive interview, “and I said, ‘Lincoln, I know you’re from Rhode Island, and I know from time to time you have to cave in to these people because you’re in a tight election, but their motivation is to blame Republicans for something the Republicans didn’t do, and you’re a Republican.’”

Inhofe added: “In the next election, high gas prices will be one of the Democrats’ big campaign issues.”

Chafee’s spokesman, Stephen Hourahan, said the senator voted against the bill because he believed it weakened environmental standards, and didn’t address alternative fuels and fuel-economy standards. Despite these objections, Chafee offered no amendments.

Democrat Demagoguery

Environmentalists opposed Inhofe’s bill for its provisions to expand refinery capacity, streamline refinery permitting and simplify so-called boutique fuel requirements. It also would have provided federal assistance for the construction of refineries on closed military bases, which could have been producing gas in about two years, Inhofe said.

But with Republicans unable to corral Chafee, Inhofe said the GOP reached out to three committee Democrats—Senators Max Baucus (Mont.), Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.)—all of whom faced pressure from home-state industries to vote in favor of the bill. Not one switched sides, however, resulting in a 9-to-9 stalemate on the bill.

Democrats, Inhofe said, are employing a strategy to defeat any measure that might reduce the cost of gasoline.

“The Democrats are all going to vote against it for one reason,” Inhofe said Tuesday as he scrambled to find one more supporter on his committee. “They want to make sure nothing happens to bring the price of gasoline at the pumps down, because that’s the issue they want to use for the elections next year.”

Inhofe said his measure was just one example. In the House, Rep. Joe Barton (R.-Tex.) barely won passage of a bill that encourages refinery construction. Not one House Democrat voted for the bill, which barely passed, 212-210, after arm-twisting several GOP moderates.

Inhofe’s observation about Democrats was confirmed Thursday when Senators Teddy Kennedy (D.-Mass.), Chuck Schumer (D.-N.Y.), Debbie Stabenow (D.-Mich.), Mark Dayton (D.-Minn.) and Ron Wyden (D.-Ore.) engaged in demagoguery, accusing oil companies of raking in huge profits with little regard for the impact on consumers’ wallets. Democrats made the same arguments a day before at the committee meeting.

But regardless of the Democrats’ over-arching political strategy, it was Chafee’s vote that ultimately sank the bill. It was the second time this year Chafee’s opposition to a GOP-backed measure—he voted against President Bush’s “Clear Skies” air-quality bill—resulted in a deadlocked vote.

Hourahan, the senator’s spokesman, said Chafee was balancing the needs of his state when he cast his “no” vote on the Gas PRICE Act. Rhode Island has two shuttered military bases that could be used, although Hourahan said local opposition to such a plan was strong.

Even though Chafee is facing a Republican primary challenge, his opponent, former Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey, has actually been running a populist-themed campaign.    Laffey, whose spokeswoman didn’t return calls to HUMAN EVENTS, recently attacked oil companies for their huge profits.

“[Chafee] is a Republican who is running in the most Democrat state in the country,” Hourahan said.  “Rhode Island is a very environmentally sensitive state, and we have people there who clearly would not have appreciated it if the senator had voted for this bill, which would have allowed two sites in Rhode Island to potentially have a refinery.”

Inhofe said Chafee had no excuse to oppose the bill.

“He sweats a lot,” Inhofe told HUMAN EVENTS.  “He said, ‘I just can’t do that. I have to win that election.  Right now I have a perfect record with the environmentalists.’ And I said, ‘This is different.  This is Democrat vs. Republican. It has nothing to do with the environmentalists.’”