But they ran into swift opposition Tuesday from Republicans who blasted the proposal as election-year politics aimed at shoring up at-risk Democrats who are encountering growing pressure from voters to address high energy costs and rising inflation.
“It’s a desperate cry for help. I think [Democrats] realize they’re on the wrong side of the energy issue, the wrong side of the inflation issue,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., told reporters in the Capitol.
“The American people are going to want answers,” he said. “So I think it’s an attempt to provide some political cover for Democrats who are running for re-election this year and don’t want to have to defend the administration or their party’s position on energy.”
Asked whether any Senate Republicans could support a gas tax holiday, Thune replied: “I can’t see that scenario.”
The dynamic flips the usual script: Democrats are pushing for a tax cut, and Republicans are standing in the way.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he would oppose a gas tax holiday.
“It’s a bad joke,” he said. “It’s a non-solution.”
He said “part of the problem is that the gas tax is what pays for the roads.”
“Everything this administration has done is go to war against fossil fuels,” Cornyn said, arguing that the solution is to “encourage more oil and gas production.”
But that idea clashes with President Joe Biden’s long-term goal of combating climate change and shifting to a clean energy economy. Democrats see a gas tax holiday as a short-term mechanism to alleviate the rise in prices due to inflation and supply chain snags.
Motorists have been feeling pain at the pump. A year ago, the average national price for a gallon of gas was $2.51, according to AAA. Today, it’s $3.50, driven higher by a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine and other factors.
Inside the Democratic caucus lunch Tuesday, Kelly stood up and gave a PowerPoint presentation running down the details of his proposal, said a source familiar with the meeting. The source said the mood was positive and that the next step was to talk to other senators about the idea and build support.
Kelly’s plan would suspend the federal 18 cents-per-gallon gas tax until Jan. 1.
“It would affect consumers across the country. It’s a pretty obvious thing to do,” he told reporters as he left the lunch.
Kelly's office said the Highway Trust Fund, which receives a big chunk of its revenue from the gas tax, recently got a $118 billion infusion under the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law and that his bill would address any near-term issues by allowing the Treasury Department to add money from the general fund to cover this year’s funding needs.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Tuesday that “eight or nine” Democrats have backed Kelly's bill, “including many of those in tough races in 2022.” In addition to Kelly, the group includes Sens. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Raphael Warnock of Georgia and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, all of whom are defending their seats in November.
“We’re having a caucus discussion on it. We haven’t yet taken a caucus position,” Schumer told reporters at his weekly news conference after the meeting. “But it’s one of the many things that we’re looking at in terms of reducing costs.”
Democrats leaving the lunch said a gas tax holiday was in the earliest stages of discussion and that it was too soon to say how exactly the legislation could be brought to the Senate floor. Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., called Kelly's presentation “informational,” while Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., was noncommittal, saying he needs to study the issue.
A fellow Democrat, centrist Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, pumped the brakes on Kelly’s gas-tax plan.
“It doesn’t make sense to me, just doesn’t make sense,” Manchin, the chairman of the Energy Committee, replied when he was asked whether the proposal was a good idea. “We’ve got a busted trust fund now. We’ve got to fix things.”
Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, the chairman of the Senate Republicans’ campaign arm this election cycle, argued that Kelly wants to have it both ways: sponsoring the gas tax holiday while backing pieces of Biden’s agenda that would raise certain taxes.
“Is this the same Mark Kelly who wanted to do Build Back Better and the infrastructure bill that was going to raise all those taxes? He must be up for re-election this year,” Scott said. “I don’t think Schumer will let it get on the floor. I mean, these guys are for high taxes, not low taxes. This is just a campaign ploy.”
However, some progressive advocates cheered the idea of suspending the gas tax.
“The gas tax is fundamentally regressive,” said Adam Green, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “It hurts the poorest people the most.”
He said a suspension would be a “logical extension” of the White House’s opposition to a higher gas tax in the bipartisan infrastructure law, a tax increase Republicans unsuccessfully pushed for last year.