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Auto Efficiency: Fighting Higher Standards

PETER OVERBY reporting:

This is Peter Overby with a reality check from Capitol Hill.

House Republican leaders have their own agenda for CAFE legislation and it doesn't include Boehlert's mandatory 33 miles per gallon. The leadership bill would duck the issue and pass the tough questions off to the Bush Administration. Here's Joe Barton of Texas, chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, at a hearing last month.

Representative JOE BARTON (Republican, Texas): Without question, our constituents want us to give Department of Transportation statutory authority to fully reform the passenger car fuel economy program. As chairman of this committee, I plan to answer that need.

OVERBY: But with rising concern about gas prices and global warming, the leadership still has problems of its own, even among Republicans. Moderates don't like the let-George-do-it approach. To mollify them, House leaders may let Boehlert offer his mandate as a floor amendment. But if that fails, many of those moderates are likely to vote against the bill itself.

At the same time, anti-regulation conservatives think the leadership bill goes too far as it is. That means many of their votes on final passage are also in question. And then there's the Democrats. They have no reason to help the GOP pass a big environmental bill. Lots of Democrats support Boehlert, but probably not enough to enact his amendment.

The Republican leadership could turn to pro-labor Democrats. They've often opposed CAFE as bad for auto industry jobs. But this time, those Rust Belt Democrats could vote with the United Auto Workers against the bill. That's because an obscure provision could cause massive job losses. It would allow U.S. automakers to move all of their small car assembly lines overseas.

Alan Reuther is the United Auto Workers legislative director. He says they've been lobbying the GOP leadership not to let this happen.

Mr. ALAN REUTHER (United Auto Workers): We're trying to indicate that if they don't include this protection, they may face serious difficulties in getting the votes to pass any legislation.

OVERBY: With all of this opposition to the bill, it's no surprise that the auto industry itself has had little to say on CAFE. Last month, the heads of the big three automakers spent a day on Capitol Hill. They met privately with House and Senate Republican and Democratic leaders. Then they held a press conference.

OVERBY: The three executives shared the stage with their preferred solution to the gasoline problem, three vehicles powered by ethanol blend fuel. Ford Motors' CEO, William Clay Ford, Jr., said Washington should leave Detroit alone. It should prod the energy companies to make ethanol more available.

Mr. WILLIAM CLAY FORD (CEO, Ford Motors): The bottleneck is distribution. And we believe that government can be very helpful in incentivizing the distribution of ethanol. And that's something we very much would be interested in having them pursue.

OVERBY: General Motors' Chairman Rich Wagoner gave CAFE the brush-off.

Unidentified Man: CAFE Standards come up?

Mr. RICH WAGONER (Chairman, General Motors): We did not talk extensively about CAFE standards.

OVERBY: The auto industry used to go into overdrive against bills like this. This time around, there's a feeling that's not necessary.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.