Path Toward Boosting ‘Clunkers’ Program Gets Easier

By Darren Goode and Dan Friedman
August 4, 2009

The path toward Senate passage this week of a $2 billion boost for the “Cash for Clunkers” program got a bit easier Monday after those seeking higher fuel-efficiency requirements signaled they will support a House-passed extension without changes. And although time is a factor in getting it to the floor in a busy week, senators from both parties predicted passage.

Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Monday they were no longer worried the program would inadequately boost fuel efficiency after being briefed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “These numbers are actually very good numbers,” Feinstein said. Those numbers – echoed in talking points the Obama administration sent all Senate offices Monday – tout an average of 25.4 miles per gallon for vehicles sold in the program, which unexpectedly ran out of its initial $1 billion congressional financing in less than a week. This, they tout, is a 9.6 mpg, or 61 percent, improvement over the trade-ins. In addition, only 5.5 percent of vehicles sold were large trucks, “which for us was the problem,” Feinstein said.

Collins also touted NHTSA’s argument that the program saves consumers between $700 and $1,000 annually in gas. She predicted more GOP support than the four who backed the initial $1 billion in funding for the program as part of a supplemental spending bill because it would be paid for this time through unused stimulus funds.

Feinstein, Collins and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who all participated in a media briefing Monday afternoon, predicted there are 60 votes in the Senate for this next $2 billion. “My guess is we can get these 60 votes,” Schumer said. He added Majority Leader Reid is “committed to getting this done.”

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said Democrats hope to reach agreement with Republicans that allow one vote on a bill with 60 votes required for passage, which she said Democrats expect to win. A filibuster remains possible, but Democrats are still trying to get unanimous consent on that one-vote strategy before leaving. Stabenow said the most likely day for a vote is Thursday, though that is Reid’s decision.

A spokesman for Reid said the main issue is “we don’t have a lot of time.”

Reid is trying to get an agreement to expedite debate and have a vote before holding one on Judge Sonia Sotomayor, but it is unclear whether that is possible. For one thing, that might mean the chamber runs out of time on travel promotion legislation important to Reid’s state of Nevada. Senators also will look to finish the FY10 Agriculture Appropriations bill before leaving until September.

Still, no Republican has said they will hold up the bill. “I’m going to hold my fire for now,” Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said, indicating he will wait to see what Reid does. Coburn predicted the bill will pass.

Collins said there is interest among Senate Republican leaders to site with Democrats “and work out a way ahead.”

Minority Leader McConnell – while criticizing the program – did not tip his hand in a floor speech Monday. “We were told this program would last for several months,” McConnell said. Invoking the debate also over health legislation, McConnell added, “There’s a pattern here, a pattern that amounts to an argument – and a very strong argument at that: When the administration comes bearing estimates, it’s not a bad idea to look for a second opinion. All the more so if they say they’re in a hurry.”
Stabenow, like Collins, predicted more GOP support this time, including from Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., who co-sponsored the initial Senate bill.

Brownback was among 36 Republicans who balked at including the initial $1 billion as part of a supplemental spending bill. That supplemental funding was approved, 60-36, squeaking by with the 60 votes needed at the time to overcome a budget point of order from Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H.
The $2 billion would come from unused stimulus funding for renewable energy loan guarantees, which Schumer and Feinstein promised would be replenished after lawmakers return from Labor Day. Schumer said no harm is done because this funding would not be doled out until well after it is filled again. Using that funding, though, is a particular headache for Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman, who helped author the loan guarantee program.  His spokesman said Bingaman, who voted for the initial $1 billion in funding, remains undecided on the additional $2 billion. Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., who was the only Democrat to vote against the supplemental funding, said he also needs to look at the funding source and is undecided.

Also undecided is Appropriations ranking member Thad Cochran, who voted for the initial funding and whose state of Mississippi is home to a major Nissan manufacturing plant, as is Sen. Olympia Snow of Maine, who voted against the initial round of funding. The other two Republicans who voted in favor of it last time – Sens. Christopher (Kit) Bond of Missouri and George Voinovich of Ohio – are expected to do so again.

As the votes are being counted, auto dealers and manufacturers are pushing for the Senate to approve the House bill this week.

The National Automobile Dealers Association sent out a legislative alert Friday, to help encourage their member companies to contact senators to vote for the House bill unchanged. “You may recall that the original ‘clunker’s bill passed the Senate with not a vote to spare,” Friday’s alert said. “It is critical that dealers and their employees call their senators as soon as possible and urge them to vote for H.R. 3435 to ensure the Cash for Clunkers program continues.”

A spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said that group is working closely with the dealers to lobby members, including in-person meetings on Capitol Hill. The manufacturers are not doing a media campaign, the spokesman said. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce extended their support through a letter Friday.