WASHINGTON — Vice President Dick Cheney challenged Congress on Wednesday to do more to help Americans feeling the pain of soaring gasoline and food prices, mounting job losses and housing woes. His remedy for the tough times: tax cuts, increasing domestic oil production and free trade.

Cheney acknowledged what he called the "recent headwinds" from spiraling food and gas prices to the turmoil in the credit and housing markets. But he expressed optimism that the faltering economy would pull through to better days.

"I believe that our country has greater wealth-creating potential than ever before, and with the right policies, we can create jobs and prosperity for our people on an historic scale," the vice president told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Cheney said the recent tax rebates sent to about 130 million households should help, but he also urged Congress to take swift action to extend President Bush's first-term tax cuts, most of which are set to expire in 2010.

Letting the tax cuts expire, Cheney said, would be a huge blow to all Americans. "The tax rate for every single income tax bracket would be increased. On average, some 116 million Americans would see average tax increases of $1,800 a year," he said.

Democratic leaders in Congress balked.

"The Republicans' answer to the real, deep, serious economic pain American families are feeling is to continue the Bush-Cheney economic policies that are destroying the middle class," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said. "At a time when Americans are facing so much economic uncertainty in their lives, George Bush, Dick Cheney and John McCain want to give more tax cuts to the top 1 percent of the wealthiest people among us."

To help ease ever-climbing gas prices, Cheney advocated expanded U.S. oil exploration and called on Congress to allow it.

"Today, we're in a situation where we're supposed to go out and scream and yell at the folks who are producing and try to get them to produce more, while we aren't working to produce all that we have here at home ourselves," he said.

Cheney said drilling in places like Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would help. Critics of drilling in the refuge, however, say it would have little impact on today's high gasoline prices.

Cheney also said Congress needs to pass a free-trade agreement with Colombia. He argued that most of what the United States buys from Colombia enters the country duty free, but much of what America tries to sell Colombia faces tariffs of 35 percent or more.

The House has blocked a vote on a free-trade agreement, citing continued violence against organized labor in Colombia and differences with the administration over how to extend a program that helps U.S. workers displaced by foreign competition.