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Democrats Slam Bush 'Inaction' in Energy Crisis

Administration officials dispute the charge and accuse congressmen of exploiting the situation for partisan gain.


WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats sharpened their criticism of President Bush's handling of the Western energy crisis Saturday, using their national radio address to accuse him of failing to move aggressively to protect consumers from rising electricity prices and power supply shortages.

"We know that in a crisis, inaction is not an option," said Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.). "But to date, unfortunately, that is all America has received from the Bush administration--inaction and excuses."

The Democratic comments came as Congress is facing pressure to respond to the energy crisis--lawmakers from the West, in particular, are hearing from consumers concerned about sharply higher prices and potential blackouts during the summer.

A power crisis through the summer would almost certainly become a political rallying point for politicians on Capitol Hill eager to push new energy policies.

Bush administration officials strongly disputed the Democratic charge that they were ignoring the power crisis and asserted they have taken every step possible except price controls on electricity suppliers.

"It is unfortunate that some Democrats are trying to exploit this crisis for partisan gain, distorting the record," Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said in a statement. "We oppose price controls . . . [but] the Bush administration will continue to look for constructive ways to remove obstacles to new electricity supply in California and the West."

Bush has called for aggressive new oil exploration while making clear he will not support any form of price controls on power suppliers.

Democrats have touted approaches that combine much more limited exploration. And some, such as Inslee, want to see the government intervene when prices skyrocket.

Inslee, in his remarks Saturday, singled out for criticism the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates interstate electricity markets. He charged that the agency had failed to ensure that consumers would not be gouged.

The commission "has the responsibility to assure that only reasonable energy prices are charged," Inslee said. He charged that the Bush administration was refusing to enforce fair pricing laws.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, who joined Inslee in delivering the Democratic radio message, called on Bush to work on a bipartisan basis with Congress to draft an energy plan that balances new exploration and the development of clean fuel supplies with energy conservation measures. He also urged Bush to make good on campaign promises to expand emergency assistance to low-income families feeling the pinch.

"I hope the Bush administration recognizes the need to step up and to work on a bipartisan basis to meet these challenges head-on," Bingaman said.

"We can encourage natural gas development and oil drilling in regions where it's been done in an environmentally sound way for decades," he added. "We can provide incentives that help families conserve energy, thereby cutting their utility bills."

Bingaman and 14 other senators, including Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), introduced two pieces of energy legislation last month. One would create tax incentives to encourage businesses to expand natural gas production in selected areas of the country. It also would encourage the development of "clean" coal production and of renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power.

The second measure would encourage energy conservation and launch an in-depth study of the problems plaguing the nation's wholesale electricity market.

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