- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Senate Republicans turned back amendments to an omnibus energy bill yesterday that would have forced automakers to build more fuel-efficient cars and trucks.

“This is still America, isn’t it? Is Congress going to mandate that people drive these things?” asked Sen. Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, pointing to a car the size of a golf cart.

“In the back road of my state, that will get you killed,” Mr. Lott said. “Don’t make the American people drive this little runt of a car.”

An amendment offered by Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, would have required the automobile industry to build vehicles averaging 40 miles per gallon — nearly twice today’s mileage — by 2014. It also would have closed the “SUV loophole,” ending the exemption that popular sport utility vehicles enjoy from the federal Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards.

The Senate voted 65-32 against Mr. Durbin’s amendment.

During the daylong debate, Mr. Durbin insisted that “unless we show leadership, Detroit is going to make the most inefficient vehicles, put them on the highway, creating more pollution, more dependence on foreign oil, and ultimately destroying the environment of the Earth that we live on.”

“I don’t think I’m overstating the case,” Mr. Durbin added. “Not at all.”

Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican, cited several studies that showed “as many as 4,500 deaths occur each year because our current CAFE standards” mandate smaller, lighter cars.

The United Auto Workers union, Mr. Allen added, also estimated that each federal mandate for a savings of one mile per gallon costs 10 percent of the automobile work force.

Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, New Jersey Democrat, mocked the idea that U.S. automakers are responding to consumer demand for SUVs, which average about 17 miles per gallon of gas and represented 50 percent of all automobile sales last year.

“That’s backward thinking that will hurt their business,” Mr. Lautenberg said. “While Americans like the convenience of an SUV, they certainly don’t like spending $40 or $50 filling the tank once or twice a week. Americans want fuel-efficient automobiles, which save them money at the pump.”

After rejecting Mr. Durbin’s stricter CAFE amendment, the Senate approved by a vote of 66-30 an amendment offered by Sens. Christopher S. Bond, Missouri Republican, and Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, that sets no new federal fuel-efficiency mandates.

Instead, the amendment requires the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to take the lead in recommending new CAFE standards and taking into account their impact on jobs and the safety of automobiles.

Mr. Bond said his amendment was preferable to Mr. Durbin’s, which “picked an arbitrary number” for fuel efficiency.

“The [NHTSA] will use science and technology” to establish CAFE standards, Mr. Bond said, “not force people into smaller cars.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, planned to offer a CAFE amendment similar to Mr. Durbin’s either late last night or today. Mr. Durbin also planned to offer an amendment yesterday that would penalize automakers with a tax of up to $7,700 per vehicle if they fail to reach his 40 miles per gallon goal by 2014.

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