A Senator in Search of the Steering Committee

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, May 21, 2009

Those standing on Delaware Avenue NE outside the Capitol yesterday afternoon probably have no idea how close they came to witnessing a tragedy.

Sen. Orrin Hatch was test-driving a plug-in hybrid Hummer H3, and the 75-year-old Utah Republican was having some technical difficulties.

"How do you start this baby?" Hatch asked of the executives who built the 100-mile-per-gallon SUV.

"It's started," an official told Hatch.

"It's already on?" Hatch asked, surprised. "Heh, heh."

"Put your foot on the brake, then put it in drive," the official said. Nothing happened. "Is your foot on the brake? You have to have your foot on the brake."

"I think I've got it on," the senator replied.

"Nope," the executive said, pointing out the brake pedal. "There we go."

"No wonder," Hatch said. "I had it on the gas."

Oh, dear.

With a whine and a lurch, the Hummer began to accelerate, and for a few terrifying moments, Hatch was in control of the bright-red 5,000-pound truck. Well, not entirely in control. "All I've got to do is smash that car, I'll tell ya," he said of a vehicle in his path. The questions he asked were unsettling: "Squeeze that button? . . . Do I park it this way? . . . I'm going to miss the curb? . . . Is there a reverse?"

Spotting a Capitol Police car, he speculated, "They're probably looking at me." Eyeing some photographers near the car, Hatch allowed that he was "a little bit concerned" for their safety. When one got too close, Hatch muttered: "That guy's really got some guts to stand there."

Actually, Orrin Hatch has some guts, too. Many in his caucus fight against fuel economy and alternative fuels; Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) drives a non-hybrid Hummer while calling man-made global warming a "hoax." But Hatch authored legislation back in 1999 promoting electric and alternative-fuel vehicles, and he's kept at it since. "I can't speak for my colleagues," he said when asked why no other lawmaker joined him at the Hummer event yesterday.

Now he's trying to get help for a Utah-based company, Raser Technologies, as it tries to turn the dirtiest of SUVs into a green machine. The company claims it has, in fact, created a 100-mpg near-zero-emissions Hummer with as much horsepower as the real thing. The company, working with FEV Inc. and with some support from General Motors, says its H3 is more efficient than a Toyota Prius and can generate enough electricity to power six homes.

But there's a problem: The prototype H3 hybrid costs millions. Even in mass production, it would probably increase the cost of a Hummer by at least 25 percent. Further complicating matters, General Motors plans to sell the Hummer brand to China as part of its restructuring.

Hatch, speaking to the cameras before his harrowing test drive, celebrated the Hummer as "nothing short of revolutionary" and "nothing less than miraculous." The monstrous SUV, he said, "is one heck of a car."

Then he got to his point. "Just as we are on the cusp of this major national victory" -- the 100-mpg Hummer, that is -- "we have learned that the General Motors restructuring plan would sell off the Hummer brand to China," Hatch lamented. "One thing we're fighting is to not lose it to China, because if this goes to China, so does the technology, and China is a very aggressive country."

A questioner asked Hatch what he drove. The senator admitted his own wheels are "an older Cadillac," but he said he was open to getting "a nice used one" of the hybrid Hummers.

But first, he said, "I'm going to drive it and see what it's like."

A few scary minutes later, he had completed his test drive and was parking the Hummer when a PR man from the company asked Hatch to take another spin because the photographers wanted to get another shot.

"Oh, they do?" Hatch asked, uneasily. After some struggle he asked, "Where's the reverse?"

"Foot on the brake -- there you go," the executive coached again.

"I've got it on," Hatch insisted. "What the heck?" he asked after more struggle. He felt for his cellphone, which was playing a noisy ring tone in the Hummer cabin. "I think we better leave it here," he said finally.

It was a wise decision. As a Hummer driver, Hatch is one heck of a senator.

Dana Milbank will be online to chat with readers at noon tomorrow. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

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