The Obama administration appealed to the Senate on Monday to bail out the cash for clunkers rebate program, arguing it has already made striking gains in fuel efficiency and is a “wildly popular” economic boost.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood ducked when asked if the program will be suspended if the Senate does not vote to replenish coffers before lawmakers go on vacation later this week. Instead, he said “I believe the Senate will pass it this week.”
The administration said the average fuel economy of new vehicles purchased through the program is nearly 10 miles per gallon higher than for the vehicles traded in for scrap. LaHood said some 80 percent of the traded-in vehicles are pickups or SUVs, meaning many gas-guzzlers are being taken off the road, and the Ford Focus is a leading replacement vehicle.
“The program is working the way Congress intended it to work,” he asserted on MSNBC. But it was not intended to run out of money nearly so quickly, nor create such confusion at dealerships.
The administration pressed hard for an additional $2 billion after serving notice over the weekend that the program could expire as early as this week unless the Senate acts, as the House did in voting overwhelmingly for the money Friday.
Senate Republicans appeared to be in no rush Monday. “We were told this program would last for several months,” GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said in remarks prepared for a Senate floor speech. “It ran out of money in a week, prompting the House to rush a $2 billion extension before anybody even had time to figure out what happened to the first billion.”
McConnell said “it’s not a bad idea to look for a second opinion. All the more so if they say they’re in a hurry.”
The administration collected information on 80,500 vehicle transactions logged into the government’s operating system through Saturday afternoon. An official said the fuel efficiency improvements would save a typical customer $700 to $1,000 a year in fuel costs. The new vehicles were getting 25.4 miles per gallon on average, a 61 percent increase over the models traded in, said the official, speaking on condition on anonymity because the figures had not been released.
The data was aimed at appeasing lawmakers such as Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, who have questioned whether the program’s environmental benefits go far enough.
“We’re encouraging senators to listen to their car dealers and the people they represent,” LaHood said. “If they do that, it will pass the Senate.”
The administration has been coy about just how long dealers would be reimbursed for rebates of up to $4,500 per vehicle, after saying Sunday that the program would have to be suspended if the Senate failed to act.
Fierce lobbying for the program came from other quarters: The National Automobile Dealers Association and the American International Automobile Dealers contacted thousands of dealerships, telling them to bombard the Senate with phone calls and e-mails.