NYT: Mileage Vote Reveals New Configuration in Senate
June 23, 2007
Mileage Vote Reveals New Configuration in Senate
By CARL HULSE
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
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.