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Leaders of Big Three meet on Capitol Hill

/ Source: The Associated Press

The Big Three automakers pressed Congress on Thursday to help make ethanol fuels more widely available, saying that would be an immediate step toward lessening U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

Leaders of General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler AG’s Chrysler Group appealed to lawmakers for incentives to increase the number of gas stations offering blends of the corn-based fuel.

“If we want a game changer, and a game changer in very short term and in big numbers, than ethanol is a very good play for this country,” said Ford’s chairman and chief executive, Bill Ford.

The executives endorsed a plan to have renewable fuels meet 25 percent of the nation’s transportation energy needs by 2025. Rick Wagoner, GM’s chairman and chief executive, said the automakers wanted to be leaders “in this historic shift from energy consumption.”

Other topics discussed during their day on Capitol Hill included health care, trade and currency manipulation by other countries.

“We really tried to make it clear to them we weren’t interested in coming, asking for help for the domestic auto industry,” Wagoner said. “We were interested in talking about things that would improve the competitiveness of the U.S. economy.”

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said they had productive discussions on several subjects, including “the importance of energy independence being a long-term goal for this country.”

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said lawmakers and auto executives were confident they could work together to “bring back the American automobile industry where we think it should be and they think it should be.”

“We recognize that there are problems, and we are going to work as partners with them,” Reid said. “Perhaps in the last many years we have not worked together as well as we should have.”

Sen. Carl Levin, a Democrat who represents thousands of autoworkers in Michigan, said the nation needs to be aggressive “in giving them support to level the playing field.”

The executives arrived in vehicles powered by ethanol and decorated with images of corn stalks. The Big Three leaders said they had produced 5 million vehicles capable of running on ethanol blends and planned to bring an additional 1 million to the market this year.

The flexible fuel vehicles, capable of running on gasoline and fuel blends of up to 85 percent ethanol, face the obstacles of finding pumps that offer ethanol.

Industry officials estimate that about 685 of the 165,000 fueling stations in the U.S. offer ethanol blends.

Pump prices top $3 per gallon in many places. President Bush has sought an increase in the availability of ethanol and alternative fuels, more research for hybrid vehicle batteries and elimination of the cap on tax credits for the purchase of hybrids.

The auto executives plan to meet in June with Bush.

The administration has also asked Congress to give it the authority to change mileage rules for passenger cars, a move that could lead to higher requirements.

Wagoner said they did not have extensive talks about fuel economy standards.

The meeting came at a challenging time for the domestic automakers. GM and Ford are executing major restructuring plans that would cut a combined 60,000 jobs and close more than two dozen plants by 2012. GM, meanwhile, has stockpiled parts in case workers at auto supplier Delphi Corp. go on strike.