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Carter gas tax stirs hornets' nest on Hill

President Carter wants to be re-elected; he also wants to increase gasoline prices 10 cents a gallon, to the consternation of many Democrats in Congress who also are up for election.

Asking sacrifices from voters just when you are asking for their votes is unusual in American politics. One of the liveliest intraparty rows in a long time has erupted between White House and Democratic-dominated Capitol Hill. And that is not all.

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The courts have taken a hand in the complicated situation that will affect America's relationship with Persian Gulf oil countries.

On June 9, a federal appellate court will hear arguments as to whether a lower court acted correctly in declaring that Mr. Carter does not have the power to raise gasoline prices at the pump by ordering a $4.62-a-barrel "oil import fee."

The lower court says it is a tax, not a fee, and hence within the purview of Congress.But this does not end it, either. House and Senate subcommittees are passing resolutions ahead of time against the proposed fee. Mr. Carter will veto such resolutions, it is understood, if they have legislative force. And for the first time in his administration the President is edging toward the invocation of "executive privilege" to withhold confidential documents from inquisitive House committees. The White House yielded some of the documents but withheld others.

The dispute involves one of the world's most important economic and political relations: America's dependence on imported oil. Three presidents for six years since the Arab oil embargo have pleaded with a reluctant Congress to impose greater oil sacrifices. With 5 percent of the world's population, the United States has been using a third of the world's energy.

President Carter believes his oil fee would reduce US gasoline consumption by 100,000 barrels a day by the end of the first year. The United States will spend approximately $90 billion this year for imported oil -- an increase of 50 percent from last year and the equivalent of around $400 for each citizen.

Mr. Carter argues that it is better for the American motorist to pay the extra cost of gasoline to his own government (which can redistribute it, perhaps , in tax reductions) than to pay out to foreign oil producers.

The President takes a big political risk in asking for sacrifice in an election year. Furthermore it will send up prices at a time of inflation. Only an emergency could justify this almost unique political move.

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President Carter prepared the way in an appeal to 75 members of Congress May 19 and by individual pleas to the Senate majority leader, the House speaker, and committee chairmen. Some congressmen are unconvinced. The House Ways and Means Committee voted 27 to 7, May 22, to disapprove the fee. The Senate Finance Committee took similar action.

Mr. Carter is firm: "We'll have much greater price increases by OPEC than we would otherwise, and will make it almost impossible for us to have a joint conservation effort by the major oil importing nations without it [the fee]," he says.

The tangled battle involves these questions: Will the Senate and House pass acts to kill the proposal? Will Mr. Carter veto such action? Will his veto be overridden? Will courts decide he has authority to allocate the fee just to gasoline (as proposed) rather than to all petroleum products? Will it go to the Supreme Court?

More important in the battle, perhaps, is whether Mr. Carter can sell his proposal to the dubious public. This would almost certainly involve a direct appeal over radio and TV to the man in the street. What will Ronald Reagan say? Such a situation in an election year is almost unprecedented.

Says John C. Sawhill, deputy secretary of the Department of Energy: "Whether the fee is passed will be a reflection of our commitment to ourselves and to our allies to be aggressive and decisive in our energy-conservation efforts."

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