A U.S. motorist pulls into a service station and plunks down $1.05 for a gallon of gasoline. In Britain the same amount of gas would cost the equivalent of $2.77.

Why the difference?British motorists, and drivers in many other European countries, pay taxes accounting for approximately half of the price of gasoline at the pump, making it a luxury item for many.

Some now believe the modest U.S. federal gas tax of 9 cents a gallon could be headed in the same direction.

"We are about to follow the Europeans down the road of no return," says Bill Berman, director of energy and environment for the American Automobile Association.

He also heads a newly formed umbrella group called Fuel Users for Equitable Levies (FUEL), which last week launched a grass-roots campaign to offset mounting pressure for a gas tax increase as a way of reducing the nation's $155 billion budget deficit. The anti-tax lobby is supported by such groups as the American Farm Bureau Federation and the American Petroleum Institute.

No gas tax increase is imminent, but with policymakers desperate for some solution to the deficit, the debate is in full swing.

Critics say a tax increase would mean slower business, higher inflation and fewer jobs.

Supporters retort that a higher tax would calm international deficit jitters and thus strengthen the economy in the long run. As an added benefit, they claim, it would reduce America's growing dependence on foreign oil by curbing demand for gasoline.

"The effort must now be made to get the deficit down," former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker said in calling for an increase in the tax.

President-elect George Bush is opposed to a higher gas tax, but the idea has drawn support from witnesses before the 14-member National Economic Commission created by Congress to search for deficit remedies.

Each penny-per-gallon of additional tax would yield $1 billion in revenue. That makes it seem an attractively quick way to sharply reduce the budget deficit.

Business is divided. Chrysler Corp. Chairman Lee Iacocca supports a tax increase, but General Motors Corp. is opposed to it on grounds that it would hammer the economy. Ford Motor Co. is hesitant on the issue but has said it could support a phased increase of 5 cents per gallon per year.

The roadbuilding lobby, led by the Associated General Contractors, opposes a tax increase on grounds that the additional revenue would go to cutting the deficit instead of expanding the $14 billion Federal Highway Trust Fund. There is no assurance that the additional tax collections would be used for trimming the deficit, however, if the money were channeled into general revenues.

In Congress, Southwesterners are cool to anything that would reduce demand for gasoline at a time when energy-producing economies back home are feeling the pain of depressed oil prices.

Across Capitol Hill, at the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, the picture is different. Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., has been smiling on the idea of a gas tax increase, although his last attempt to push one through failed on the House floor.

"It was good economic policy and good energy policy," Rostenkowski told a Wall Street group recently. "It was not good politics."

Rostenkowski now says it's up to Bush to take the initiative on the gas tax issue.