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Senate rejects plan to require automakers to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles

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WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Senate has rejected a plan that would have required the auto industry to spend millions to produce cars, trucks and sport utility vehicles that run 50 percent farther on a gallon of gas.

The industry and its unions lobbied hard against requiring a 36-mile-per-gallon average by 2015. Supporters of the higher standard said it would have saved millions of barrels of oil and could have been reached through current and emerging technologies.

Instead, the Senate told the Transportation Department with a 62-38 vote Wednesday to develop new fuel economy rules over the next two years but did not require specific mileage increases.

Separately, senators voted 56-44 to exempt pickup trucks from future mileage increases.

Sen. John Kerry, the 36 mpg proposal's sponsor, said the proposal that replaced his in a broad energy bill was ``an artful dodge, a great escape'' from doing anything about fuel economy. ``We are going backward,'' said Kerry, D-Mass.

Federal fuel economy rules have not changed in 15 years, noted Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., who said the vote was ``a missed opportunity ... to pass meaningful'' standards.

The House already has turned down significant increases in auto fuel economy.

Automakers now are required to meet a fleet average of 27.5 mpg for sedans and 20.7 mpg for SUVs, minivans and pickups. Kerry's proposal would have combined the two categories.

The average for all vehicles was 24 mpg in 2000, about what it was 22 years ago.

Conservationists say motor vehicles account for 40 percent of the oil used across the country, and higher mileage levels would help reduce U.S. reliance on oil imports as well as deal with environmental problems such as climate change.

The Senate debate, however, focused on the potential fallout from the proposed mileage increase: job losses in the auto industry and the production of smaller cars, which opponents of the standards said could lead to more traffic fatalities while depriving Americans of lower-mileage but roomier minivans and SUVs.

Minority Leader Trent Lott displayed a picture of a two-seater, bubble-like subcompact _ a Daimler-Chrysler that gets 70 mpg and is sold only in Europe. ``I don't want every American to have to drive this car,'' said Lott, R-Miss.

Kerry accused opponents of his proposal of ``extraordinary, ridiculous scare tactics'' prompted by the auto industry.

``No American will be forced to drive a different vehicle. The technology is available today to meet the higher standard,'' Kerry said. He cited a National Academy of Sciences study last year that concluded significant fuel efficiency improvements were possible without making cars smaller and lighter.

But Sen. Carl Levin, a co-sponsor of the alternative that passed, rejected claims that his approach would not improve fuel economy.

It would require federal regulators to issue new mileage rules within two years, but ``in a way that does not harm the domestic manufacturing industry,'' said Levin, D-Mich.

Sen. Christopher Bond, also a co-sponsor, acknowledged ``it's going to be several years'' before regulators could develop new computer models to make changes in the current standard if the proposal became law.

Any changes ``in the short term are going to have to be very modest,'' said Bond, R-Mo.

Until recently, Congress has barred regulators from even studying fuel economy increases.

Both sides referred to the academy's report. It said mileage improvements _ as much as 42 percent for SUVs and minivans _ were feasible using current and emerging technologies, but that more people could die in accidents if automakers, forced to act too quickly, made smaller and lighter vehicles.

Kerry maintained the 13-year lead time in his legislation was enough for automakers to meet the new standard. He cited plans by the Ford Motor Co. to have an electric-gas hybrid SUV on the market that gets 40 mpg by 2004.

His allies argued that it is impossible to address the broader issue of energy conservation without reducing gasoline use by passenger vehicles. They account for about 8 million barrels of the United States' daily consumption of 19 million barrels of gasoline.

``America will only grow more and more dependent on foreign oil'' without the higher standards, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. She was one of only six GOP lawmakers who favored the tougher requirements. Nineteen Democrats and 43 Republicans favored the Levin proposal.
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