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HIGH GAS PRICES REV UP POLITICS

Republicans are urging repeal of President Clinton's 1993 gasoline tax increase, while Clinton orders an investigation of the recent price surge at the pump and moves to sell some of the nation's petroleum stockpile in hopes of taming prices.

Suddenly, gasoline is an election-year issue.Attorney General Janet Reno told reporters Tuesday the Justice Department is reviewing requests from several members of Congress to investigate whether any illegal price gouging is behind the increases at the pump.

Clinton on Monday authorized the "orderly sales" of about 12 million barrels of oil from the nation's strategic petroleum reserves, a move that, by increasing supplies, might drive down prices. He also asked Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary to report within 45 days "about the factors that led to the run-up in prices."

Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., on Tuesday blasted Clinton's action as "another example of the administration's shameless pandering for the presidency." He said Congress required the sale, in spending legislation approved last week, to offset increased spending on edu-ca-tion demanded by Clinton.

"This is convenient spin. The American people need to know that this was going to happen without the president's action," said Livingston, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Newt Gingrich is promising a vote on the tax-repeal issue by Memorial Day. Thrown on the defensive, the White House says it's willing to discuss such a repeal, which Sen. Bob Dole proposed Friday in a letter to Clinton.

Democratic lawmakers, scrambled Monday to keep the campaign focus on a minimum wage increase, suggested oil-company profiteering had more to do with motorists' pain at the pump than the 4.3-cent-per-gallon surcharge.

"Just before the tourist season begins, it's interesting that these prices would go as high as they are. I have a feeling it has a lot more to do with profits than it does with taxes," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said oil companies - whose profits have increased strongly - "curiously" have curtailed refining rather than increasing it after the severe winter.

The American Petroleum Institute said in a statement Tuesday that the strategic petroleum reserve "never was intended to be used to control prices or to dampen normal price fluctuations." It was designed "to provide Americans with a buffer in case of a major oil supply disruption or shortage."

Gasoline prices are at their highest level since the Persian Gulf War. They've jumped 5 cents in the past two weeks and 14 cents in the past year. The average price nationwide, including all grades and taxes, was 136.34 cents a gallon as of Friday, according to the Lundberg Survey.

But in California regular unleaded gasoline averaged $1.55 per gallon and full-service premium exceeded $2 per gallon.