With the Mideast crisis dramatizing the country's heavy reliance on foreign oil, America's love for gas guzzling cars is again coming under attack - and Detroit is scrambling to control the damage.
The Senate is scheduled to take up legislation Monday on whether to require automakers to boost average fuel economy to 40 miles per gallon, a 40 percent increase.In the House, sponsors of a similar bill are threatening to make an end run around the Energy and Commerce Committee - whose chairman, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., strongly opposes tougher car mileage requirements - and push the bill directly on the House floor.
The fuel-economy measure once was given only scant chance, but industry lobbyists and members of the Bush administration now say they're concerned the measure may sneak through as Congress searches for ways to reduce oil consumption.
The nation's transportation system - and to a great extent the automobile - accounts for 60 percent of America's energy needs, said Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev., sponsor of the Senate bill. He said that if a 40-miles-per-gallon car were in common use, it would save 2.8 million barrels of oil a day.
The rumblings on Capitol Hill over auto fuel economy have caught the automakers at a particularly bad time. With gasoline relatively inexpensive before the latest Persian Gulf crisis, the manufacturers have been pushing performance over fuel economy when planning future product lines.
These plans would have to change dramatically under Bryan's bill.
The measure would cause "economic disaster" to the industry and force automakers to retool production lines to meet the new fuel efficiency requirements, said Thomas Hanna, the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers president.
As the bill's prospects have risen, so have the voices on both sides of the issue.
"It should be called the highway fatality bill," Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner told a news conference in denouncing the legislation. If passed, he said, the measure would lead to smaller cars and more deaths.
Skinner said he would recommend that President Bush veto the bill. He said he is concerned the "near hysteria" over the Mideast situation may propel the legislation through Congress.
But environmentalists say Skinner is being taken in by the automakers, who contend they lack the technology to improve fuel efficiency dramatically after years of making cars lighter, smaller and more efficient.