ALLENTOWN - Sen. John McCain ridiculed Sen. Barack Obama yesterday for failing to endorse proposals put forward by himself and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to suspend the federal gasoline tax from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

"There are some experts who view it as the end of Western civilization as we know it," he said of the plan's critics, who include the Democratic candidate.

"It's to just give Americans - and particularly low-income ones who drive the oldest automobiles - a little break this summer," McCain said to a group of reporters riding with him on his campaign bus between Bethlehem and Allentown.

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee, McCain was in Pennsylvania for a few hours as part of what he called a tour of America's health-care system. It was his 15th visit since January to a key swing state.

He arrived from Florida, attended a private fund-raising luncheon at a country club in Bethlehem, and then spoke to about 225 staff members at Lehigh Valley Hospital in Allentown. Today, he planned to stop at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.

While promoting the health-care plan he introduced Tuesday, McCain also twice brought up Obama's opposition to suspending the 18.4-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax.

McCain first suggested the idea April 15. In response, the highway industry and state governors said it would drain away billions of dollars needed for road and bridge repairs.

On Monday, Clinton, battling Obama for votes in Democratic primaries in Indiana and North Carolina, endorsed the gas-tax moratorium. She proposed to make up the lost revenue by imposing a windfall profits tax on oil companies, which are benefiting from fuel prices that in Pennsylvania approach $3.70 a gallon. McCain has said he can find money by ending wasteful federal spending.

President Bush on Tuesday seemed to dismiss the proposals with the comment that he would consider the idea.

Obama called both the McCain and Clinton proposals little more than political ploys designed to "get them through an election." He said there was no guarantee that oil companies would lower prices if the tax were suspended.

McCain noted, however, that Obama, as an Illinois state legislator, had once voted in favor of a Democratic proposal to suspend the fuel tax "when gas was only about $1.50 a gallon."

The key element in McCain's health-care plan is a $2,500 refundable tax credit - $5,000 for families - to use for purchasing private health insurance.

To offset the cost to the federal government, he would eliminate the tax break that employers now receive for providing employee insurance. Some employers could still choose to provide insurance under his plan.

Some Americans, including many who are self-employed, now pay far more than $5,000 for family coverage - sometimes twice as much. McCain said that such families would still be $5,000 ahead under his plan.

McCain said the biggest challenge to providing health insurance for all Americans is paying the high cost of coverage for people with chronic illnesses who cannot get individual coverage at a price they can afford.

He had no specific answer for that but said he would work with "governors and the legislatures" to develop a plan. Some states have a pool of funds to help cover the chronically ill.

Clinton and Obama are proposing government-financed plans to make full coverage available. McCain said that would only escalate health-care costs.

McCain, who has had surgery for malignant melanoma, has yet to release his medical records.

He joked that this was the fault of "the inefficiency of our smooth-running, well-oiled [campaign] machinery," but said he would release the records soon.

Polls show that health-care consistently ranks third among the concerns of Pennsylvania voters, after the condition of the economy and the war in Iraq.

McCain may be better received this fall than Bush was in 2000.

"McCain is the kind of candidate that Pennsylvanians like to support," said Berwood Yost, director of the Center for Opinion Research at Franklin and Marshall College.

"He is not viewed - whether this is reality or not - as radically conservative," Yost said. "He is considered a moderate, and moderate politicians play very well in Pennsylvania."

McCain said he did not believe that most voters would truly make up their minds until after the party conventions this summer.

"It's going to be a long campaign," he said. "I am optimistic about the state, but I know we have a lot of work to do."

Senate: McCain Is 'Natural Born'

The Senate yesterday unanimously approved a resolution endorsing Sen. John McCain's eligibility for the presidency, even though the presumptive Republican nominee was born outside the United States, on a military base in the Panama Canal Zone.

The Constitution requires that presidents be "natural born citizens," a term that isn't defined.

The nonbinding resolution says McCain, 71, whose father was in the Navy, was born to American citizens on a U.S. military base and is a "natural born citizen" eligible for the office. Two lawsuits have sought to have McCain declared ineligible.

Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton were cosponsors of the resolution.

- Bloomberg News

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Contact staff writer Tom Infield
at 610-313-8205 or phillynews.com.