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HOUSE PANEL PASSES RELIEF ON GASOLINE TAX

Gasoline tax relief is a step closer to passage in the House but remains bogged down in the Senate, where Democratic critics say they want to make sure the savings go to consumers, and not oil companies.

The House Ways and Means Committee on Thursday by a 23-13 vote approved legislation that would suspend the 3-year-old 4.3 cent-a-gallon surcharge for the rest of the year in hopes of providing relief to motorists from soaring prices at the pump. House GOP leaders predicted a vote to approve the bill before Memorial Day.But in the Senate, the tax relief effort continued to be embroiled in a dispute over the minimum wage and other labor issues. Attempts to end the logjam were stymied Thursday as Democrats stood firm in their demand for separate and speedy votes on both issues.

President Clinton has said he would sign a gas tax repeal but only if Congress approves legislation raising the $4.25-an-hour minimum wage as well. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas accused Democrats of creating an impasse.

Moderate House Republicans said Thursday, after meeting with House leaders, that a vote on a minimum wage increase could come within two weeks.

While the politically popular gas tax measure has been gaining bipartisan support, Democratic critics in both the House and Senate expressed growing concern that without specific assurances the tax savings may not be passed on to motorists.

"We must address the issue of who gets the benefit. Will it go to the consumer?" said Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Democratic leader.

During a four-hour session of the House Ways and Means panel, a number of lawmakers said they were concerned that oil companies would have no reason to pass the savings on to consumers because of high summer gasoline demand and tight supplies.

"There's no assurance consumers will ever see this (saving)," complained Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich. "Prices are likely to go up."

The House bill would repeal the tax six days after it becomes law. The levy would be reinstated on Jan. 1, 1997. If passed on, the tax cut would save motorists about $15 over the seven months, assuming average travel of 15,000 miles a year in a vehicle that gets 25 miles per gallon.

Levin suggested it might be just as good to give every motorist a $15 check and keep the tax.

And Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., called it "an open invitation" to the oil companies to use the savings to increase profit margins. He offered a provision that would make it unlawful not to pass on the tax savings to motorists, but the amendment was rejected 21-15. Republicans said it would be impossible to enforce and amounted to an attempt by government to fix prices.