Clunkers bill could face tougher road in Senate

The cash for clunkers program the House raced to save Friday may face greater obstacles in the Senate as some members said they would oppose the $2 billion extension for fiscal and environmental reasons.

As news broke that the $1 billion auto-trade in program had almost burned through its appropriation, Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) released a statement that said the price of their support to extend it would be tougher mileage standards.

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Feinstein had told the Associated Press in June that she supported appropriating the $1 billion for the cash for clunkers bill only after receiving “absolute assurance” from Democratic leaders that a follow-on version would set fuel efficiency standards similar to the requirements of a competing clunkers bill she introduced.

Her bill required new cars to get at least two miles more per gallon than the version Congress ultimately agreed to after a vigorous lobbying campaign by automakers and the United Auto Workers union.

Environmental advocates urged Feinstein and other senators to oppose the extension.

“Congress should try to figure out how the first $1 billion was spent before it throws another $2 billion into the pot,” said Dan Becker of the Safe Climate Campaign, an environmental group. “Did most of the taxpayer subsidy go for efficient, clean vehicles that cut global warming pollution and our oil addiction or did people trade in old clunkers for new gas-guzzlers?”

Meanwhile, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) sent a Twitter message on Friday raising cost concerns with the program.

“We simply cannot afford any more taxpayr $ to extend cash for clunkers. Idea was to prime the pump, not subsidize auto purchases forever,” McCaskill wrote.

Even advocates say the bill may be tough to block, however, given the margin of support for the bill in the House, where it passed 316-109, and the backing of the White House.

Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said the Senate would try to take up the bill next week. Reid planned to work with Feinstein and others to reach an agreement on extending the program, Manley said.

With the House in recess, however, there won’t be much opportunity for negotiation.

Bailey Wood, a lobbyist for the National Auto Dealers Association, acknowledged some senators wanted tougher fuel requirements in a follow-on bill, but was hopeful the Senate would agree to the House-passed version.

“This has obviously been a resounding success,” Wood said. “Why change something that obviously works?”

The $1 billion was expected to last until the fall, but auto dealers reported late this week that consumer interest was quickly draining the program of funds.

The House bill directs the Obama administration to transfer $2 billion to the cash for clunkers program from portions of the economic stimulus package yet to be expended.

Drivers get vouchers valued between $3,500 and $4,500 to trade in their older vehicles to buy cars that get at least 22 miles per gallon.

A bill introduced by Feinstein and Collins would require the purchased vehicles get at least 24 miles per gallon. It defined a clunker as a vehicle that gets 17 miles per gallon or less. The clunkers bill funded by Congress requires trade-ins to get 18 miles per gallon or less.

Proponents of the Feinstein-Collins bill said it would do more to cut gasoline consumption and lower aggregate carbon dioxide emissions from the tailpipe.

But the auto industry and labor unions strongly backed the bill with less stringent fuel economy requirements, arguing it would do more to help the industry recover.