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NYT: Mileage Vote Reveals New Configuration in Senate

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  • Ram Lau
    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/23/washington/23energy.html June 23, 2007 Mileage Vote Reveals New Configuration in Senate By CARL HULSE WASHINGTON, June 22 —
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 23, 2007
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      June 23, 2007
      Mileage Vote Reveals New Configuration in Senate

      WASHINGTON, June 22 — Automakers had to know they were in serious
      trouble when Senator Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat with
      deep blue-collar roots, announced that she had lost patience with
      their annual objections to higher gas mileage rules.

      "When automobile manufacturers told me they could not meet the
      increased standards, I listened," said Ms. Mikulski, who said she had
      always been swayed by the potential loss of middle-class manufacturing
      jobs. "I listened year after year, and now I have listened for more
      than 20 years. After 20 years, I firmly do believe it is time for a

      Bolstered by such converts as Ms. Mikulski, the Senate just before
      midnight Thursday approved an energy bill that would for the first
      time in more than two decades require auto companies to produce cars
      and trucks that get substantially more out of a gallon of gas.

      But that was about the only industry it took on. The measure, approved
      on a bipartisan 65-to-37 vote, essentially spared oil and gas
      companies and major utilities and fell short of goals initially set by
      supporters in areas like renewable fuels.

      Still, lawmakers treated the traditionally insurmountable opposition
      of the auto industry as little more than a speed bump on the way to
      the bill's passage. That amounted to a cultural shift in the Senate,
      where an alliance of union-backed Democrats, lawmakers of both parties
      from auto-producing states and business-minded Republicans had always
      pulled together to hold off increases in fuel efficiency rules, also
      called the Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards. They
      traditionally argued that the technology for higher mileage was not
      available, car costs would rise and Detroit would be forced to make
      lighter and smaller but more dangerous cars.

      But with gasoline at $3 per gallon, the industry hemorrhaging jobs and
      foreign manufacturers producing cars that get better mileage,
      advocates of increasing the mileage standards were able to stitch
      together a potent coalition behind an increase.

      "The time has come for us to speak for the American people and not the
      car manufacturers," Senator Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada and the
      majority leader, said earlier in the week as he inspected new plug-in,
      hybrid electric cars in a park adjacent to the Capitol.

      If the Senate bill becomes law, new cars, light trucks and S.U.V.'s
      will have to get an average of 35 miles per gallon by 2020, compared
      with roughly 25 m.p.g. today. Automakers had sought not only more time
      to reach the higher standard, but they had also lobbied,
      unsuccessfully, for a separate, and more relaxed, S.U.V. requirement
      of 30 m.p.g. by 2025. S.U.V.'s now must achieve an average of 21.3 m.p.g.

      The outcome left industry allies in Congress scrambling Friday to try
      to head off a similar result in the House, where the influence of the
      automotive industry is declining as well. They acknowledged a very
      real image problem for the car industry but said moving too quickly
      was unfair to American industries that had higher labor and benefit
      costs than their foreign competitors. And they said oil industry
      allies had purposefully put the Senate spotlight on automobiles to
      protect oil and gas companies from new regulation.

      "The reality is that Big Oil would like to keep the focus off of
      them," said Senator Debbie Stabenow, Democrat of Michigan.

      Backers of the bill suffered two major defeats. Republicans blocked a
      proposal to impose about $32 billion in new taxes on oil and gas
      companies to subsidize production and research of renewable energy
      sources. Lawmakers also prevented a vote on a plan to require
      utilities to produce 15 percent of their electricity with renewable
      fuels by 2020.

      But Democrats promised on Friday to continue to pursue those
      initiatives and said they had the votes to prevail eventually. And
      they hailed the bill that passed as a major step forward, pointing to
      new energy efficiency standards for appliances and the federal
      government as well as a requirement for the annual use of 36 billion
      gallons of alternative fuels like ethanol by 2022.

      "Beyond petroleum has to be more than a television commercial," said
      Senator Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat who played a central
      role in securing the votes for the measure.

      Some interest groups criticized the bill as not doing enough while
      Republicans said it could drive up the price of gasoline at the pump
      while doing nothing to promote more domestic oil and gas production.

      "This is really an anti-energy bill," said Senator Mitch McConnell of
      Kentucky, the Republican leader.

      But the chief development by far was the approval of the automotive
      mileage changes over intense lobbying by the auto industry. Lawmakers
      and Senate officials said they quickly heard from angry
      representatives of the major car manufacturers and unions, who
      complained that the mileage rules gave Nissan, whose fleet already
      comes close to meeting the new mileage standard, an advantage. This
      helped pick up the votes of senators from Tennessee, where Nissan has

      At the same time, auto industry allies said provisions on
      flexible-fuel vehicles that favored domestic companies were watered
      down, removing a potential competitive advantage by Detroit over its
      foreign rivals.

      Ms. Stabenow said members of the Michigan Congressional delegation met
      Friday to plot strategy for the upcoming House energy fight and to try
      to win improvements in the mileage rules and perhaps some help for the

      Representative John D. Dingell, Democrat of Michigan and the senior
      member of the House, has long been able to thwart efforts to increase
      mileage standards. But Mr. Dingell and Speaker Nancy Pelosi of
      California have bumped heads on the issue, and momentum is building in
      the House for an aggressive package of energy initiatives.

      Mr. Reid, the majority leader, predicted Friday that the House and
      Senate would be able to reconcile their differences quickly, allowing
      Congress to deliver a final bill to the president in the near future.
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