Detroit Faces Bipartisan Fire Over Fuel Economy

By Sholnn Freeman and Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 24, 2007

For more than 20 years, the American automotive industry has deflected attempts to force improvements in vehicle mileage. Now Detroit is getting battered on the issue from almost every side, and even industry-friendly lawmakers say change is looming.

Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), long protective of the automakers, has told lobbyists for the industry to get ready for some bad news. In private meetings this year, Dingell, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said that a proposal that alters fuel economy standards is likely this year -- and that Detroit will not like everything in it.

"He gave us a dose of political reality," an auto lobbyist said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), who represents a district heavily dependent on the auto industry, said it may be time for the industry to start looking for a compromise.

"We have to look at something different," Rogers said last week. "Something is going to be done on fuel efficiency for vehicles -- that much I believe."

The political movement toward a change in corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, standards has steadily picked up momentum as high gas prices and anxiety over global warming have gripped the public. Old allies of the auto industry, including oil and chemical companies, have deserted carmakers by calling for better fuel efficiency.

Still, the legislation faces hurdles. A markup hearing in the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has been postponed to May 8 as members turn their attention to competing legislation on identity theft. Proponents of the fuel economy legislation will also have to address concerns raised by new Democratic members who have automotive plants in their states.

The committee is working under a tight deadline from Senate leaders who want a fuel economy bill as a component of a larger energy package by May 14.

Any bill could encounter a floor fight. In interviews yesterday, Michigan Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Carl M. Levin, both Democrats, said they favored alternatives, including a "cap-and-trade" system for emissions of carbon dioxide, an idea that's being advanced in the House by Dingell and Republican lawmakers.

"There is going to be a clash, no doubt about it," Rogers said.

A few oil companies have told lawmakers that fuel economy standards should be toughened as a way to reduce demand for oil products. ConocoPhillips has been among the most outspoken in its demand for better vehicle mileage.

Among chemical manufacturers, Dow Chemical has rankled the auto firms the most, industry lobbyists say. Though it is based in Michigan along with the automakers and is a major supplier to them, Dow has called on the industry to increase vehicle fuel economy by 4 percent.

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