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Cheneys' utility bills set off partisan furor

Vice President Dick Cheney, energy czar of the Bush administration, wants the Navy to bear the full brunt of the escalating utility bills at his government-provided Victorian mansion _ a request that touched off a partisan furor Tuesday on Capitol Hill.

Citing "fluctuating and unpredictable" utility costs, the White House is asking the Navy, which owns and administers the 33-room Embassy Row house, to foot the entire bill.

If Congress approves _ and a GOP-controlled House committee gave its blessings Tuesday _ it would free Cheney from having to pay a projected $142,590 this year out of the current $300,000-a-year budget for the vice presidential mansion, which is on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory.

Such a new payment scheme, if approved, would cause the Cheney residence budget to diminish by $43,500 _ the current appropriation for utility bills, according to the vice president's top aides.

Either way, taxpayers end up subsidizing Cheney's gas and electric bills _ a tradition that predates this administration.

But at a time when most Americans face higher energy bills, the proposed funding shift looms as a political liability for Cheney and the Bush White House.

Senior Cheney staffers played down the funding shift request, characterizing it as the completion of a simple accounting change begun under the Clinton-Gore administration. They noted that the Cheneys are consuming less energy than the Gores, who had several teenage children living at the house during their tenure.

"This is not something that is new," said Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Largo.

"Cheney had zero to do with this," said Mary Matalin, counselor to the vice president. "The vice president and Mrs. Cheney are not sitting at their breakfast table determining how these accounts are handled."

But Democrats refused to cooperate. Some continued sniping even after the House Appropriations Committee approved the funding transfer, on a straight party-line vote.

Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., who represents a district with a large Navy presence, urged his constituents to send their utility bills to the Navy as well.

"Wouldn't it be nice if the seniors on fixed incomes, the working families, and small businesses across the country had that option?" Filner fumed.

The funding flap may prove sensitive for the Bush administration in part because polls have consistently shown that a majority of Americans believe Bush and Cheney _ both former oil energy executives _ favor Big Business over Joe Sixpack.

At the same time, the request also may reinforce the image among some that the Bush administration is out of touch with common concerns _ in much the same way a $200 haircut aboard Air Force One damaged Bill Clinton's populist image early in his first term.

Too, Cheney has been on the defensive on energy issues since April, when he seemed to denigrate conservation.

John Scofield, a spokesman for Republicans on the panel, said energy consumption at the vice president's mansion is down by an estimated 30 percent with the Cheneys as occupants.

Panel votes to support

drilling in Arctic refuge

A House panel on Tuesday threw its support behind oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, giving President Bush at least a temporary victory on one of the most contentious elements of his energy plan.

Opponents of drilling in the Arctic refuge said the vote by the House Resources Committee came as no surprise and predicted its endorsement of Bush's proposal would be overturned on the House floor or in the Senate.

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