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August 23, 2014

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LETTER FROM WASHINGTON:

No headway on gas prices, but mortgage bill passes

Energy still divides parties; Republicans cross over on housing

Deep in the basement of the Senate offices, down a brick corridor not far from the Capitol subway, lies a mini-city: A travel agent. A coffee house.

And a barbershop.

Step inside, and you realize this is a man’s world. Sure, there is an adjacent hair salon. But with the row of barber’s chairs, and first-name banter between barbers and important men, this is a portrait of Washington.

Sen. Harry Reid stopped by Friday morning, at the end of a long week, to get his hair cut. There, he happened on an ally in the Democrats’ efforts to lower gas prices, Jim May, the president and chief executive of the airlines’ Air Transport Association.

Four-dollar-a-gallon gas is immensely felt in Las Vegas, where sun and sprawl conspire to make even the shortest walk unusual.

Workers in the West can easily commute 100 miles a day from exurb to metro center, or across the vast rural reaches of Nevada.

With prices like these, a full tank passes for a sign of wealth.

The airline man also feels the pain at the pump, and at the barbershop he told Reid his group had sent 350,000 e-mails in support of the Democrats’ bill to rein in oil market speculators, the majority leader recounted. Reid and May believe speculators are culprits in the rising price of fuel.

But Republicans say speculation is only one part of the gas price problem. They easily defeated the bill Friday, protesting they had been procedurally blocked from offering as many as 28 other ideas, including their calls for offshore drilling and renewable energy development.

Reid called it “the most unbelievable dodge.” Republican Sen. John Ensign said Democrats were “playing politics.”

The House had no better success relieving pain at the pump.

House Democrats failed to get the supermajority needed for a bill to release oil from the nation’s strategic reserves. Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley and Republican Rep. Jon Porter voted yes; Rep. Dean Heller voted no. Republicans again protested being shut out of the process.

Congress will try again this week. In fact, House Republicans promise to try halting summer adjournment unless they get a vote on their latest energy bill, which has new provisions promoting nuclear power.

Nevada’s House lawmakers have shown a greater willingness to be part of Washington’s compromise on mortgage relief. The state’s foreclosure crisis is among the worst in the nation.

Homeowners who are shelling out more than 30 percent of their income to mortgage payments would get a chance to refinance at lower rates under a voluntary program that would require lenders to lower the value of the loan. The bill also includes the Bush administration’s plan to shore up mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Heller joined a few dozen other Republicans, including Porter, in bucking party leaders to pass the bill. Berkley also voted yes.

Despite having “some strong reservations,” Heller said in a statement the bill is “still a positive step.”

Reid kept senators in Washington for a rare Saturday session to pass the housing bill and send it to President Bush.

Ensign became the only one of Nevada’s Washington lawmakers to vote no, calling it a bailout that could do long-term financial harm.

But Berkley thinks more needs to be done, joining labor leaders to press for additional federal aid to the states.

Congress is mulling over a second dose of economic stimulus after approving $600 individual rebate checks this year to boost spending. The new package could include more than $50 billion for jobs-rich transportation projects, as well money for food stamps and other aid.

Berkley also wants a temporary increase in money for state Medicaid programs, thinking it could help boost jobs and services after Nevada’s budget cuts.

Just inside the barbershop is a shoeshine man. Hanging above his station are portraits of Reid; his Republican counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky; and others — like Hollywood celebrity photos in stores in Las Vegas or L.A. Stop in for a minute and you just might see Washington at work.

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