WASHINGTON - The Senate rejected a proposal to require a sharp increase in automobile fuel economy Tuesday after concerns were raised that it would lead to a loss of auto industry jobs and limit consumer's ability to buy larger cars and SUVs.
By a 65-32 vote, the Senate turned back a proposal offered by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., that would have required automakers to produce a fleet average of 40 miles per gallon by 2015, a dramatic increase from the current 27.5 mpg now required.
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Instead, senators approved by a 66-30 vote an industry-supported measure that turned the issue over to the Transportation Department, which will be required to take into consideration an array of issues - from job losses and highway safety to economic impact on U.S. auto manufacturers - before any rule change can be made.
This would "create unnecessary hurdles to any significant increases" in fuel economy by the transportation agency, argued Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and open any future fuel economy decisions to an increasing number of court challenges.
"We are going backwards," said Bingaman.
The measure, offered by Sens. Kit Bond, R-Mo., and Carl Levin, D-Mich., prescribes no specific, mandated increase in corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE.
This "assures that future standards are based on sound science" rather than "a politically arbitrary figure" that would cause economic harm, argued Bond. "It requires increasing CAFE standards to the maximum extent feasible."
Durbin, D-Ill., said the technology is available to make cars and even sport-utility vehicles use substantially less gasoline, but he said opponents are content "to wave a white flag and say we can't do it" and let foreign automakers develop the technology.
"The technology is there," he insisted.
Supporters of tougher fuel economy measures said the Senate cannot pass a comprehensive energy blueprint for America without doing something about fuel use by passenger vehicles, which burn two of every five barrels of oil used in the country each day.
A less ambitious proposal, expected to be introduced later Tuesday, would require SUVs, pickups and passenger vans to meet the same fuel economy requirements as passenger cars, not the current 20.7 mpg. Like the Durbin amendment, that measure, to be offered by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, has been opposed by the auto industry as well as unions. Its prospects were uncertain.
Most Republicans and a scattering of Democrats from states with large auto manufacturing plants supported the Bond-Levin amendment.
The average fuel economy for 2003 model vehicles on the road, including SUVs, was 20.8 mpg. That is a 6 percent decline from 1988, when auto fuel efficiency levels peaked, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA's figures are different from the formal CAFE standard because they are pegged to actual purchases, not fleet averages of cars built.
Opponents of stricter CAFE requirements argued that arbitrary increases in fuel economy requirements will force automakers to make smaller cars and lead to more deaths on the highways and less consumer choice in showrooms.
"What about choice? This is still America," said Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss. He brought to the Senate floor a picture of a European mini-car, declaring, "I don't think we should be forced to drive that automobile."
Supporters of higher CAFE requirements scoffed at Lott's assertions, noting the car he singled out is designed to get 70 mpg, far beyond what any of the fuel economy proposals would require. They cited a National Academy of Sciences report that concluded that substantial increases in fuel economy are achievable using current technology - such as advanced transmission designs, aerodynamic improvements and direct fuel injection - without reducing vehicle size or jeopardizing safety.
Opponents of the tougher measures cited the same NAS report, which also acknowledged that when vehicles were downsized to make them more fuel efficient in the 1970s and 1980s, the result was an increase in highway deaths.
Copyright © 2003 The Associated Press