WASHINGTON, Aug. 9 — President Bush spoke out Thursday against increasing the gasoline tax, an idea being discussed as a potential part of a new Congressional plan to shore up the nation’s bridges after the deadly collapse in Minneapolis.
In his last major news conference before his summer vacation, Mr. Bush also criticized Democrats in Congress more generally, questioning their priorities and motives on topics like economic policy and their perjury accusations against Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales.
Asked about the gasoline proposal, which could amount to an increase of 5 cents a gallon under schemes floating around Congress, Mr. Bush said, “Before we raise taxes, which could affect economic growth, I would strongly urge the Congress to examine how they set priorities.”
The comments prompted angry volleys from Democrats, underscoring how sour relations have become between Mr. Bush and the Congressional Democrats as both take a summer break seven months after promising to work together.
Representative Rahm Emanuel, Democrat of Illinois, said he would use reports that the nation’s bridges were in overall disrepair to insist that the president match emergency spending on Iraq with emergency spending on bridges.
Representative James L. Oberstar, Democrat of Minnesota and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, suggested this week that a tax increase might be needed to finance a proposed trust fund to repair bridges in the Federal Highway System, A large percentage of the bridges have been identified as having structural problems.
Mr. Oberstar raised the possibility of a temporary 5-cent-a-gallon tax. The idea has some bipartisan support.
Representative Don Young, Republican of Alaska and former chairman of the transportation panel, said he could possibly support such a tax. Mr. Young has previously voiced support for increasing the gasoline tax.
Mr. Bush, relaxed and primed for his vacation, scolded Congress for what he called its poor management of transportation financing.
"You're trying to force-feed the market rather than being market driven," he said Wednesday during a panel discussion at the Center for Automotive Research Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City.
"I've never seen a market-distorting policy like CAFE," he said, referring to the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards. He said some of the standards being discussed in Washington are not achievable under present technology.
He also seemed to favor an increase in the gasoline tax floated by Democratic U.S. Rep. John Dingell, although he said after the discussion that he wasn't endorsing such an increase but that it should be part of the debate.
Several automakers, including Ford, opposed a Senate fuel economy increase included in an energy bill that would increase the requirements 7.5 miles per gallon to 35 mpg by 2020. House and Senate negotiators are expected to consider the changes next month.
Automakers have supported a more moderate increase in the standards that would raise fuel efficiency requirements to 32 to 35 mpg by 2022.
Automakers are currently required to meet a fleetwide average of 27.5 mpg for cars and 22.2 mpg for sport utility vehicles and small trucks. The car standard has not changed since 1989, though the truck requirements have been increased slightly by the Bush administration.
Mulally said Ford favors higher fuel economy, energy independence and being good stewards of the environment.
"The auto industry can't solve energy independence and it can't solve global warming, but we absolutely want to be part of the solution," he said.
A gasoline tax would be a more market-driven solution to solving the oil independence problem instead of CAFE, which has not worked, Mulally said.
"If we're really going to work on this, then the way you get at it is you make an economic decision just like they do in Europe, where the prices are seven, eight, nine dollars a gallon, and our behavior would change dramatically," Mulally said during the panel discussion.