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It looks like Senate Republicans are practicing the "compassionate conservatism" advocated by GOP presidential front-runner George W. Bush. At least where big oil is concerned. The working poor, school officials and those in need of decent housing, however, apparently should seek compassion elsewhere.

In their desperate attempts not to touch Social Security money while balancing the federal budget -- an exercise that appears to be increasingly futile -- Senate Republicans have sought to trim expenditures by cutting a variety of domestic programs that would give a measure of help to those on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. But when it comes to increasing revenues by making oil companies pay what they owe, well, that's a different story.

Senate Republicans showed their empathy with the big oil companies the other day when they killed an attempt to increase the royalties they pay for oil taken from federally owned lands. The Department of the Interior wants to base royalties on the market price of oil, a price that would be posted in a newspaper every day so there would be no question about how much was owed.

The way the system is set up now, the oil companies set the price, and federal regulators say that price is $4 or $5 a barrel less than the market price. What often happens, according to the Interior Department, is that a subsidiary of Company A drills that oil and pays the royalty on the cheaper price. It then sells the oil to another subsidiary of Company A, which sells it at full-market price. Nice deal.

The Republican senator who led the fight to protect the oil companies from paying a fair royalty was Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas. Guess who gave a ton of campaign money to Hutchison? That's right -- Big Oil. Oil companies have handed her $1.2 million in contributions in the past five years.

She says that basing royalties on the market price of oil would amount to an unfair tax increase. The senator also says it would be unfair to change the terms of the lease with the companies before it expires.

She has an unusual sense of fair play. What's unfair is letting oil companies pay an artificially low price for oil that they drill from federally owned land.

Moreover, going to bat for oil companies at a time when Republicans are cutting help for the most vulnerable among us is shameful.

Her amendment protecting the oil companies is now in a Senate appropriations bill that's in conference committee. No such provision is in the House measure.

This sleazy attempt to keep the oil companies from paying a fair price for oil taken from public lands needs to come out of the final bill. If it doesn't, the president should veto it.

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