Senate approves $2 billion for 'cash for clunkers'

The Senate voted 60-37 Thursday night to approve $2 billion in additional funding to the popular “cash-for-clunkers” program that administration officials warned would run out of money this week.

The Senate voted around 8 p.m. and prepared to adjourn for a month-long August recess, setting up a busy September, when lawmakers will continue debate over healthcare reform and also take up controversial climate-change legislation.

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The Senate leaves town without passing healthcare reform legislation, despite an August deadline set by President Barack Obama. Members of the Senate Finance Committee will continue to talk over August about legislation that would pay for an overhaul of the nation’s healthcare system. They have set a Sept. 15 deadline for themselves.

A Democratic aide said the Senate may be in session Friday morning to approve nominations. Votes are not expected.

Senate Democrats unified Thursday evening to defeat five Republican-sponsored amendments that would have frozen funding for the cash-for-clunkers program until September. Any changes to the legislation, passed by the House last week, would have required agreement from the lower chamber, which is in recess until Sept. 8.

“This program gives a much-needed jolt to our economy and our manufacturers at a critical time,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “Retiring and recycling older, less-efficient cars and trucks and replacing them with higher fuel economy models reduces oil consumption and air pollution.”

The cash-for-clunkers bill survived a scare from an amendment offered by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) that would have limited vouchers to individuals earning less than $50,000 and couples earning under $75,000.

Republicans mobilized in support the amendment hoping that 10 or more Democrats would join them but Democratic leaders kept their ranks in line. The measured was tabled by a vote of 65-32.

The administration said Wednesday that most of the $1 billion initially allocated for the program had been spent to subsidize the purchase of 185,000 vehicles. Funds were scheduled to run out Friday.

Under the program, owners who trade in cars and trucks less than 25 years old that travel fewer than 18 miles per gallon of gas can receive vouchers for the purchase of more fuel-efficient vehicles. A fuel-economy improvement of four to 10 miles earns a $3,500 subsidy; an upgrade of more than 10 miles per gallon is worth $4,500.

The $2 billion extension, which the House passed by a vote of 316-109, appeared to face a tougher path in the Senate at the start of the week.

Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) said they would demand tougher mileage standards in exchange for supporting an extension. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) wrote on her Twitter page that she would oppose the bill outright because: “We simply cannot afford any more taxpayr $ to extend cash for clunkers.”

Feinstein and Collins ended up voting for the bill. Seven Republicans in total cast “yes” votes.

Three Democrats opposed the legislation: McCaskill and Sens. Patrick Leahy (Vt.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.).