WASHINGTON -- President Bush said Tuesday that Congress is blocking his proposals to deal with high gas prices and dragging its feet on other issues to address the nation's sagging economy. He said he was open to any idea in terms of energy, including a proposal backed by John McCain and Hillary Clinton to suspend gas and diesel taxes this summer.
But, he said, he favored longer-term fixes, such as encouraging new oil production in the United States and the building of new refineries.
"It's a tough time for our economy," Bush said at a Rose Garden news conference. "Across our country, many Americans are understandably anxious about issues affecting their pocketbook, from gas and food prices to mortgage and tuition bills. They're looking to their elected leaders in Congress for action.
"Unfortunately, on many of these issues, all they're getting is delay," he said.
Bush was asked about a proposal by Republican presidential contender John McCain, later endorsed by Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton, to suspend taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel for the summer travel season. The tax is 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline and 24.4 cents on diesel fuel.
"I'm open to any ideas and we'll analyze anything that comes up," he said.
But Bush also said he didn't want to inject himself into the ongoing presidential race. Of the three candidates, only Democrat Barack Obama has not backed the gas tax proposal.
The average price of a gallon of gas has reached $3.60 nationwide.
Bush renewed his objection to calls that the government discontinue keeping up the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve supply while oil prices are so high. "If I thought it would affect the price of oil significantly, I would seriously consider it," he said of an idea embraced by many Democrats and some Republicans.
Bush also said that it was important to keep filling the reserve, in underground salt domes in Texas and Louisiana, in case there is a terror attack on the nation's oil supplies. He also once again called for Congress to permit drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a proposal he has made repeatedly since he first took office in 2001, and to pave the way for the building of new refineries.
"Another reason for high gas prices is the lack of refining capacity. It's been more than 30 years since America built its last new refinery. Yet in this area, too, Congress has repeatedly blocked efforts to expand capacity and build more refineries," Bush said.
The president revived an earlier proposal that shuttered military bases be used as sites for new refineries. In the past, oil and energy experts have expressed little interest in that, saying military bases often aren't situated where the oil pipelines are anyhow.
He sidestepped a question on whether there should be a second stimulus package. Rebates started to go out this week as part of a $168 billion stimulus package enacted in February. The checks will range to up $600 for an individual, $1,200 for a couple and an additional $300 for each eligible dependent child.
"Now, you know, after a period of time, the money is beginning to arrive. We'll see what the effects are," he said.
Bush also called on Congress to act more quickly on legislation to make more student loans available and to help homeowners facing foreclosure.
As he has in the past, Bush declined to call the current economic slowdown a recession, even though many economists say the nation is already in one.
"You know, the words on how to define the economy don't reflect the anxiety the American people feel," Bush said. "The average person doesn't really care what we call it. The average person wants to know whether or not we know that they're paying higher gasoline prices and they're worried about staying in their homes."
Asked if he thought government figures due out Wednesday on the nation's gross domestic product for the period from January through March would show the country was indeed in a recession, Bush said, "I think they'll show we're in a very slow economy."
On other subjects, Bush:
-- Said he believes the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan is making strides in tamping down "a very resilient enemy." Bush is scheduled to meet later with the special representative of the U.N. Secretary-General for Afghanistan, said that he believes the NATO-led mission in the country is succeeding. "We're making progress, but it's also a tough battle," Bush said. "We're facing people who are willing to strap bombs on themselves and walk into places where the innocent dwell."
-- Declined to openly criticize former President Carter for his meetings last week with representatives of Hamas, the Palestinian group the State Department considers a terrorist organization. "Anybody can talk to whomever they want, but I want people to understand the problem is Hamas," said Bush. "Foreign policy and peace is undermined by Hamas. ... That's the reason I'm not talking with them," he said.
-- Spoke about intelligence that was released alleging that Syria and North Korea were cooperating on a clandestine nuclear reactor. He said the intelligence was made public to step up pressure on North Korea to end its own nuclear program and to pressure Syria to stop destabilizing the Middle East by aiding insurgents in Iraq and Hamas in Lebanon. He said it was also meant to send a message to Iran.
-- Immediately violated his own pledge not to get involved in the presidential contest by asserting that McCain would be the victor. He was asked if he was concerned that his successor would not put enough emphasis on continuing the war on terrorism. "I don't think John McCain is going to neglect the war on terror. And I do think he's going to be president."
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