The Senate yesterday defeated an effort to increase fuel efficiency standards for cars, sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks by 50 percent over 13 years, voting instead for a measure -- backed by the auto industry -- that would give the Bush administration two years to develop its own mileage rules.
The Senate voted 62 to 38 for the legislation sponsored by Sens. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) and Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.). It came in the form of an amendment to a broader energy bill that seeks to wean the nation from its dependence on Mideast oil.
After the vote, Sens. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) abandoned plans to offer a rival amendment -- backed by environmentalists -- that would raise fuel economy standards for the nation's automobile fleet from 24 to 36 miles per gallon in 2015. Congress last raised fuel economy standards in 1975.
"You have to count votes around here," Kerry said. "I'm not interested in Pyrrhic efforts."
The outcome highlighted the auto industry's power in Washington as well as the philosophical divide at the heart of the energy debate unfolding on the Senate floor. Particularly after Sept. 11, which brought home the dangers of U.S. entanglements in the Middle East, Democrats and Republicans say they want to promote energy independence. But Democrats generally favor conservation while the Bush administration emphasizes production, especially in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a pristine coastal plain off-limits to oil exploration.
The result is a kind of standoff, with each side refusing to give the other what it most desires at the risk of producing no significant energy legislation. The House last year passed an energy bill largely in line with the administration's approach. It calls for drilling in the Arctic refuge.
Yesterday's Senate action -- which included passage of a measure to exempt pickup trucks from any new fuel economy standards -- followed an intensive lobbying and advertising campaign by the auto industry. It contended the Kerry-McCain bill would cost thousands of jobs, deprive consumers of the cars they want to drive, and compromise safety by forcing manufacturers to make smaller, lighter vehicles.
"This is still America," said Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who illustrated his point with a photograph of a bright purple European-made minicar. "We should be able to make our choices. We shouldn't have the federal government saying you're going to drive the purple people eater here."
Kerry accused opponents of indulging in "extraordinary, ridiculous scare tactics." He said the higher "corporate average fuel economy" (or CAFE) standards in his amendment were readily attainable by means of technology and would not deprive Americans of safe, affordable SUVs and minivans.
"We've seen advertisements suggesting that people will have to farm with a subcompact car," Kerry said. "I mean, how insulting to the intelligence of Americans who know they want more efficient cars."
Congress instituted the fuel-efficiency standards in 1975, with the increases phased in through 1989. But the original CAFE legislation did not anticipate the popularity of SUVs and minivans, which are classified as light trucks and therefore are subject to less stringent fuel-economy rules. As sales of those vehicles have soared, average fuel economy has slipped to about 24 miles per gallon, the lowest since 1980.
Kerry and McCain, seeking to address the slippage, cited a National Academy of Sciences finding that automakers could achieve significantly higher fuel economy at a reasonable cost by building more efficient and aerodynamic vehicles.
But opponents also found ammunition in the the NAS study, in particular its conclusion that the earlier CAFE standards may have been responsible for between 1,300 and 2,000 highway deaths in 1993 because of reductions in vehicle weight and size. They also argued that because the standards are based on fleet averages, they discriminate against U.S. manufacturers, whose product lines contain a larger share of sport utility vehicles than some foreign competitors.
"I don't want to tell a mom in my home state that she should not get an SUV because Congress decided it would be a bad choice," Bond said.
Under the amendment Bond sponsored with Levin -- with backing from most Republicans and Democrats from farm and auto-industry states -- the Department of Transportation would have two years to develop new mileage standards. The legislation directs the department to consider safety as well as economic impacts -- such as job losses -- in formulating new standards.