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GOP leaders urge probe of gas prices

Frist and Hastert spell out concerns on price gouging

WASHINGTON -- Republican congressional leaders yesterday urged the Bush administration to investigate whether oil companies are gouging consumers at the gasoline pump and whether market speculators are pushing up fuel prices.

US retail gasoline prices are above $3 a gallon in many parts of the country and are forecast to keep rising. Republicans fear they could lose the Senate and House of Representatives in this November's congressional elections if voters retaliate against them for the high fuel prices.

Senate majority leader Bill Frist and House Speaker Dennis Hastert wrote President Bush and asked him to direct the US attorney general and the Federal Trade Commission to crack down on any potential price gouging.

''Anyone who is trying to take advantage of this situation while American families are forced into making tough choices over whether to fill up their cars or severely cut back their budgets should be investigated and prosecuted," the lawmakers said in their joint letter to Bush.

The lawmakers also want the Justice Department and the FTC to look into oil refining operations, transporting of fuel by pipelines, marine vessels, and trucks, and the storing and marketing of fuel, as well as spot shortages of gasoline, to determine if there is any manipulation of gasoline prices.

''Sweeps of retail distribution centers should be undertaken to ensure that retail price movements are in response to a change in market conditions and not price gouging," the lawmakers said.

They also asked Bush to direct the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to increase its scrutiny of trading of oil, gasoline, and other energy contracts on the New York Mercantile Exchange to determine if the price spike is caused by market manipulation by traders or energy firms.

''We believe that protecting American consumers in these unprecedented market conditions is of paramount importance," the lawmakers said.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said the Republicans' call for a gasoline price investigation shows they are ''scrambling for political cover" because Republicans will be held accountable for ''turning a blind eye" to soaring gasoline costs.

The Democrats also said the Republicans' demand for action lacks credibility because Republican lawmakers ''have allowed oil and gas companies to line their campaign accounts with cash when they should have been cracking down on price gouging and rising gas prices."

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