Lawmakers agreed to add language to a pending energy bill that would require the government to first consider the impact of higher mileage requirements on passenger safety and job losses in the auto industry.
The provision, offered by lawmakers from auto-manufacturing states, would require the Transportation Department to set new mileage requirements for light trucks within 15 months and 24 months for passenger cars. The amendment did not specify how much average vehicle fuel economy must improve, leaving it up to the Transportation Department to decide.
"I don't want every American to have to drive this car," declared Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., pointing to picture of a two-seater, bubble-like subcompact. He said the fuel economy rules amounted to the government mandating consumer choice.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who has led the fight for the 50 percent fuel economy increase, said automakers clearly have the technology and with a 13-year lead time would be able to make the fuel economy improvements without sacrificing size or safety.
"No American will be forced to drive a different vehicle," said Kerry, accusing the opponents engaging in "a lie" and "extraordinary, ridiculous scare tactics" by claiming that suburban soccer moms will have to give up their SUVs and minivans and farmers would have to till their land in subcompacts.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.C., called the vote "a missed opportunity ... to pass meaningful (fuel economy) standards" and noted that it has been 15 years since the federal regulations had been changed.
The House in its version of the energy legislation calls for modest limits on the amount of oil used for motor vehicles, a requirement expected to amount to about a mile-per-gallon improvement in new car fleets.
Automakers currently are required to meet a fleet average of 27.5 mpg for sedans and 20.5 miles per gallon for SUVs, minivans and pickups. The Kerry proposal would have combined the two categories and required the industry to meet an average 36 mpg overall fuel economy by 2015. He had offered to exempt some pickup trucks in an effort to try to garner additional support.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., one of the co-sponsors of the alternative proposal that was approved, rejected claims that his approach would not improve fuel economy. It would require the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration within two years to issue new fuel economy rules, but "in a way that does not harm the domestic manufacturing industry."
Until recently the NHTSA had been barred by Congress to even study fuel economy increases.
Kerry called the proposal by Levin and Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., an "artful dodge, a great escape" from doing anything about fuel economy. "We are going backward," he said.
"The technology is available today to meet the higher standard," Kerry insisted, citing a National Academy of Sciences study last year that concluded significant fuel efficiency improvements are possible without reductions in car size and weight.
The auto industry and the United Auto Workers have lobbied aggressively against the Kerry measure. The White House contended last week it would lead to thousands of additional traffic deaths as cars and other vehicles become smaller and lighter. Opponents have taken out ads criticizing "some senators" for threatening Americans' right to own a sport utility vehicle or minivan.
The theme dominated the Senate debate Tuesday and Wednesday.
"American women love their SUVs and minivans ... because of their safety," proclaimed Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., a co-sponsor of the less stringent proposal.
If Kerry's proposal became law "about the only way we could get there is to put everybody into glorified golf carts," added Bond.
Both sides repeatedly cited the National Academy of Sciences report that concluded that fuel economy improvements, including gains of as much as 42 percent on SUVs and minivans, are achievable without sacrificing size or horsepower, using technologies already available.
But the study also warned that without adequate lead time, automakers could be forced to resort to smaller, lighter vehicles, reducing safety. The scientists said that was the case in the late 1970s and 80s. Kerry countered that the 13-year lead time in his legislation is plenty for automakers to comply using current and emerging technologies, including hybrid electric-gasoline vehicles now appearing in showrooms.
Supporters of the tougher measures argued it's impossible to address the broader issue of energy conservation without reducing gasoline consumption by increasing the federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard. Passenger vehicles use about 40 percent of all the oil used today, or nearly 8 million barrels a day.
"If we don't increase CAFE standards, America will only grow more and more dependent on foreign oil," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, one of only six GOP senators who favored the tougher fuel use requirements. Nineteen Democrats and 43 Republicans favored the Levin proposal.
While fuel efficiency increased dramatically in the late 1970s and early '80s, there has been no progress since 1988, when the motor fleet reached a peak of just under 26 mpg. The average for all vehicles was 24 mpg in 2000, about what it was 22 years ago.
The primary reason has been the huge popularity of SUVs and minivans, which are subject to less stringent fuel economy requirements and average about 20 mpg, as opposed to 28 mpg for passenger cars, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. These vehicles, along with pickups, account for nearly half of all vehicles sold.