The White House is asking the U.S. Navy to pay the six-figure utility bill for Vice President Dick Cheney's house, as Democrats accused Cheney, the administration's point man on energy policy, of "staggering insensitivity." The bill for electricity, gas and water for the 33-room official vice presidential residence at the U.S. Naval Observatory is projected at $136,000 for fiscal 2002 which ends in September, compared with a budget of $43,600, the White House said. The bills have far outstripped the budget since an electricity meter was installed in 1998, the White House said.
This has driven Cheney to practice the energy conservation he is now preaching to the American public -- after once dismissing it as a "personal virtue" -- and has led the White House to ask Congress to shift the bill to the U.S. Navy from the vice president's office.
"The vice president and Mrs. Cheney are very concerned about the height of those bills and are investigating every way they can to reduce those bills," Cheney spokeswoman Juleanna Glover Weiss said
. She said the Cheneys had cut the mansion's energy use by up to 25 percent since they moved in in March.
The White House said the Navy had previously paid the over-budget portion of the utility bills. The shift was proposed in President George W. Bush's budget request to Congress in February.
"This is direct and honest budgeting," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
Democrats, who have criticized the national energy plan developed by Cheney as favoring increased production of coal, oil and nuclear power over conservation, immediately hit out at the White House request.
"I just think it shows a staggering insensitivity shown to the economic hardship facing working families today," Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe said on CBS television. Fleischer rejected the charge, saying Cheney's awareness is demonstrated by his work for a new energy plan that would increase supplies and lower bills. "If people are looking for somebody who is sensitive to high bills they couldn't find a better role model than Dick Cheney," he said.
Cheney on Monday led a team of top administration officials who fanned out across the country to promote the administration's energy plan, and he emphasized the importance of conservation measures included in the plan.
This is a change in tone from an April speech in Toronto, where Cheney said "conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound energy policy."
The White House said in an internal memo that it wanted to put the vice president's power bill in the Navy budget because "it would be extremely difficult for an account the size of the official residence of the vice president to accommodate ... natural and economic fluctuations."
An unusually hot summer or cold winter, or an increase in utility prices, could force the White House to go back to Congress for extra money mid-year, the White House said.
The energy bill for the vice presidential residence was $83,811 in fiscal 1999 and $136,000 in 2000. In that period, the average household electric bill rose from $848 to $872, according to the Edison Electric Institute, an industry group.
Congressional estimates had initially projected this years' bill at $186,000 but Weiss said a new estimate of $136,00 was based on actual usage.
Before the meter was out in 1998, the utility bill was based on the floor space and ranged from $44,482 to $48,801 from 1995 through 1998, according to Congressional figures.
Weiss said one reason for the costly bill was a "highly inefficient" new heating and air conditioning system installed in 1993, when former Vice President Al Gore lived there. Security requirements to keep most windows closed reduced the efficiency of the system, she said.
The White House emphasized
that this year's bill reflects the time when Gore lived in it or when it stood unoccupied. Gore lived in the house for nearly four months of the current fiscal year, and it was unoccupied from the January 20 inauguration until Cheney moved in in March, Fleischer said.
"Since Dick Cheney's moved in he's actually using less energy than was used in a comparable period when Al Gore lived there. I don't think its a question Dick Cheney left
his hair dryer in a socket," he said. - (Reuters)