Sen. Bob Bennett says Utahns shout the question at him as he rides in local parades. Rep. Jim Matheson says it is the hottest political topic he has seen in Utah in years. It is: What is Congress doing to lower gasoline prices?

Unfortunately, the answer is Congress didn't do anything before it began its August recess on Friday —except argue for weeks after gasoline hit $4 a gallon.

Most major legislation came to a standstill in that time as Republicans blocked it to demand that Congress first vote on such things as lifting bans on oil shale development on federal lands, or lifting bans on at-sea drilling in the outer continental shelf.

Democrats would not allow that, saying it would do little to lower gas prices now and might hurt the environment. They instead pushed mostly to attack speculation in oil markets (as oil companies reported record profits), but Republicans blocked that to seek votes affecting oil production.

Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, who is free from most political pressure since he was defeated in this year's primary, said in a recent interview that Congress seems more interested in gaining ammunition against opponents than lowering prices. "It's frustrating," he said.

Utah's members of Congress were often in the middle of the gasoline-fueled fury of recent weeks, frequently giving floor speeches or participating in press conferences or hearings.

For example on Friday, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, told the Senate, "Democrats have done absolutely nothing to address the rising cost of energy. We (Republicans) have proposed increasing the supply off our coasts, extending the expiring energy tax incentives and reducing our dependence on foreign oil by providing alternative energy resources."

Bennett, R-Utah, in a Senate speech on Thursday said Utahns seeing him in parades for July Fourth or Pioneer Day would shout questions including, "Why aren't you producing more American oil? Drill now."

He said, "I am going to have a hard time explaining to anybody why the Senate won't allow us to do that," because of stalemates by the two parties favoring different approaches. He especially attacked some Democrats who argued against lifting bans on oil shale development on federal land, claiming the technology for that is not yet ready and mature.

"We are (ready) in Utah," he said, adding such production is happening on state-owned lands. "The reason they can't produce large amounts of oil is that we don't have enough state land to produce on a larger scale. If you are going to produce large quantities, you have to allow development on (federal) public lands, but there is a moratorium in place (there)."

Matheson, D-Utah, introduced a bill on his way out of town Friday with five colleagues that calls for a comprehensive approach to addressing energy concerns. "I think everything needs to be on the table," from oil shale to nuclear to coal and more, he said.

"In September, Congress will have to do something. I think we need to take a comprehensive approach. There is no one simple silver bullet to solve this," he said. He earlier introduced a bill also to regulate oil speculators who try to evade U.S. oversight by dealing U.S. oil in foreign exchanges.

Matheson said that with the exception of concern with terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001 bombings, he has never seen an issue that brings as much concern with so many people in his district. "That's because everyone drives down street and sees gasoline at more than $4 a gallon, so they all get frustrated — like I do."

As a sign that the non-progress on oil prices will be used for campaign purposes, the National Republican Congressional Committee issued a press release attacking Matheson on Friday for being a "lapdog to Democrat Party leaders" in energy votes against considering GOP plans.

"Jim Matheson should go to work in the construction industry, since he would obviously make a much better road block than representative for the people of Utah," said NRCC spokesman Ken Spain. Matheson dismissed it as election-year theatrics, saying, "My constituents know that I look for practical solutions to these problems."

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, also has been critical of Democrats. In a recent e-mailed newsletter to Davis County Republicans, he said, "Since June the Democrat leaders have cancelled sessions, stopped work on pretty much all the appropriations bills and only allowed floor votes on bills where there is a limit on amendments and non can be about energy bills."

Some of the other interesting gamesmanship in recent days included:

— When the House adjourned Friday and the C-SPAN cameras were turned off, some Republicans remained on the floor to bash Democrats anyway. "Where, oh were, has Congress gone?" asked Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas. He and some other Republicans called for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to bring the House back to address energy issues.

—The Republican Study Committee called on President Bush Friday to call Congress back into session from its recess to address gas prices. "We urge you to immediately bring the Congress back into session to do its job and give the bipartisan, pro-drilling majority a vote," its letter said.

— On Thursday before adjournment, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid asked for unanimous consent to a variety of bills that Republicans had blocked (to draw attention to those roadblocks), including bills to strip oil companies of unused lease, extending tax credits for developing alternative energy and subject the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to U.S. antitrust laws. Republicans were forced to formally object to each.

In return, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell asked for consent on GOP proposals on offshore drilling, nuclear energy and "clean coal" technology, and Democrats formally objected. McConnell offered to make offshore drilling allowed only if gasoline reached $4.50 a gallon, then $5 a gallon, then $7.50 and finally $10 a gallon, with Democrats objecting each time. He said that shows Democrats object to drilling there "even if gasoline reaches $10 a gallon."


E-mail: lee@desnews.com