GOP opposition threatens ‘cash for clunkers’ program

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Republican opposition is stalling Senate efforts to keep the popular “cash for clunkers” program alive.

The program, which gives consumers who trade in old gas-guzzlers for more fuel-efficient models as much as $4,500 each, is likely to end by the weekend unless the Senate approves additional funding.

Senate Republican leaders railed against it Monday, calling the program a model of government inefficiency and out-of-control spending. The program originally got $1 billion, but all but exhausted that funding last week, its first. The House of Representatives approved another $2 billion on Friday, but the Senate is balking.

“We were told this program would last for several months. As it turned out, it ran out of money in a week, prompting the House to rush a $2 billion dollar extension before anybody even had time to figure out what happened with the first billion,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

President Barack Obama plans to meet with Senate Democrats Tuesday at the White House to discuss several issues, including keeping “cash for clunkers” alive.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs explained the stakes: “If it doesn’t happen this week,” he said of Senate action, “it’s unlikely that we’ll make it to the weekend with a program that can continue.”

It’s easy for a small group of senators to exploit Senate rules to delay action.

Republican senators are trying to tie the car program’s troubles to controversial proposals to overhaul health care and Obama’s stewardship of the economy.

“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,” McConnell said.

While the auto program appears to be popular, polls show rising public wariness of big free-spending government, and Republicans are seizing that political ground. In the July 22-26 Pew Research Center survey, Obama’s approval rating dropped 7 percentage points since June to 54 percent. The public’s approval of his handling of health care, the economy and the federal deficit also dropped significantly.

As a result, it’s unclear if people will see an extension of cash for clunkers as another example of worrisome big government expansion or of government responding helpfully to an important need, said Michael Dimock, a Pew Research Center associate director.

“We just don’t know,” Dimock said.

“Management of cash for clunkers does call into question how all these other government programs are being run,” said Brad Coker, the managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research in Jacksonville, Fla. People could see the clunker program as another reminder that “Obama’s never run anything,” Coker said.

The GOP is convinced that it can get some political mileage out of stalling. Under Senate procedures, Republicans can delay the bill until at least Thursday, and perhaps longer, even if senators are able to cut off a filibuster.

Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., the Senate’s second-ranking Republican, said Monday that “I don’t care about the political risk. I’m concerned about the process and about how the government is going to pay for this … $4,500 is a lot of money to give somebody to buy a car who was already going to buy a car.”

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood pushed back hard on Monday, appearing on TV talk shows and sending senators a “fact sheet” claiming that the program had “succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations.”

Among its boasts: The average fuel economy of new vehicles bought under the program is 25.4 miles per gallon; the average mpg of trade-ins was 15.8, a 61 percent improvement. The change should save the typical consumer between $700 and $1,000 annually in gasoline costs.

In addition, 47 percent of new cars are from the hard-pressed Big Three U.S. automakers. The best-selling car in the program is the Ford Focus.

The program’s success so far won over some initially skeptical senators on Monday. Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, had said it should do more to promote the purchase of fuel efficient vehicles, but after seeing the Transportation Department data, they said that they would back additional funding.

“The good news is that, after seeing the figures so far, I believe the best solution is to continue and extend the program as it is,” Feinstein said.

Helping the lobbying blitz is the National Automobile Dealers Association, which sent a “legislative alert” to its members.

“It is critical that you contact your senators and urge them to support the cash for clunkers provision without amendment,” the NADA alert said.

Dealers are increasingly worried that they won’t be reimbursed under the program. NADA Chairman John McEleney warned that “until further definitive guidance on the availability of funding is provided by the administration, dealers who accept additional ‘clunkers’ deals may face a risk that they will not be reimbursed.”

(c) 2009, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.