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WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden called on Congress Wednesday to suspend the federal gas tax for the next three months in one of his administration's most controversial efforts to give Americans relief as gas prices soar above $5 a gallon in many states.
The proposal was met with widespread skepticism. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and other top Democrats were noncommittal, signaling it could be doomed in Congress.
A three-month federal gas tax holiday would suspend a tax of 18.4 cents per gallon of gas and 24.4 cents for diesel that drivers pay when they fill their tanks. The White House billed the holiday as a way to provide some "breathing room" as it works to bring costs down over the long term. The pause, which Biden envisions lasting through September, would require congressional approval.
"We can bring down the price of gas and give families just a little bit of relief," Biden said, urging companies to pass on "every penny" of the reduction to consumers. "There's no time now for profiteering."
In a speech from the White House, the president also encouraged states and local governments to suspend their gas taxes.
Revenue from the federal gas tax supplies the Highway Trust Fund, which is used to pay for transportation and mass transit projects. Biden wants Congress to offset the loss of highway funds – about $10 billion – with other federal tax revenue. The federal government's deficit is down $1.6 trillion this year, Biden said, so the United States can afford to pause the gas tax.
Biden has struggled to rein in historic gas prices amid skyrocketing inflation that has taken a toll on his presidency before the midterm elections in November. Suspending the gas tax is one of the quickest steps he can take to try to ease the pain for drivers. The national average for a gallon of gas was $4.968 on Wednesday, according to AAA, jumping more than $1.50 since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February.
A federal gas tax holiday, floated over the years but never enacted, has plenty of critics. This week, Larry Summers, Treasury secretary during the Clinton administration and an economic adviser for President Barack Obama, called it "a gimmick" that wouldn't solve the underlying issues causing the price spike.
A statement from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington, warned that the holiday could drive up inflation after it ends and that it would deplete transportation funds and reduce only a fraction of the overall historic spike in gas prices. Environmentalists argued a gas tax holiday undermines the goal of moving toward clean energy.
There's no guarantee Biden's gas tax holiday proposal will pass Congress, where Democrats would need 60 votes in the evenly divided Senate to overcome any filibuster from Republicans. Not even Democratic leaders are on board.
“We will see where the consensus lies on a path forward for the President’s proposal in the House and the Senate," Pelosi said in a statement.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., questioned whether the holiday would provide significant savings for drivers and said he's unsure it has the votes to pass the Democratic-controlled House. "But I also think that trying to get the prices down for consumers at the pump is an important objective," Hoyer said.
Pelosi resisted the idea of a gas tax holiday earlier this year. So did Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. On Tuesday, Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., called the proposal "shortsighted and inefficient," saying it would jeopardize funds used for transportation.
In February, a coalition of Senate Democrats from battleground states – including Raphael Warnock of Georgia, Mark Kelly of Arizona and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire – proposed suspending the gas tax through the end of the year. Their legislation faced resistance from Republicans who slammed it as a political stunt to help in the midterms. The White House never rallied behind the legislation, which did not advance, but remained open to it publicly.
All 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia, impose a gasoline tax, the revenue from which typically pays for transportation and other infrastructure projects. The average state gas tax is about 29 cents nationwide; California pays the highest rate and Alaska the lowest.
The White House wants states, as well as cities that have gas fees, to replicate Connecticut, New York, Maryland and other states that suspended gas taxes this spring amid rising inflation.
One common concern raised by critics of a federal gas tax holiday – including Pelosi – is that oil companies will pocket the tax cut. Research suggests that might not be the case.
The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania released budget estimates last week showing the majority of cost savings during gas tax holidays that Maryland, Connecticut and Georgia enacted this year went to consumers instead of gas companies or filling stations.
In Maryland, 72% of all tax savings passed to consumers, the study found. In Georgia, it was 58% to 65% and in Connecticut 71% to 87%.
The federal gas tax, created in 1932 during the Great Depression, has stayed at 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, then-Sen. Barack Obama opposed calls from Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic primary opponent Sen. Hillary Clinton to enact a gas tax holiday amid the Great Recession.
“This isn’t an idea designed to get you through the summer," Obama said at the time. "It’s an idea designed to get them through an election.”
Biden also renewed his call for oil companies to increase refinery capacity and output and for retailers to pass savings on to consumers as the price of oil lowers. The president criticized oil company CEOs for collecting $35 billion in profit during the first quarter of 2022 as gas prices spiked. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm is set to meet with oil company executives Thursday.
"This is a time of war, global peril, Ukraine," Biden said. "These are not normal times. Bring down the price you are charging at the pump to reflect the cost you are paying for the product. Do it now. Do it today. Your customers, the American people, they need relief now."
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Gas tax holiday: Biden proposes 3-month break from federal gas tax