Recently, the Senate debated the need for requiring improved automobile fuel economy standards. Though a clear majority of 57 senators voted in support of this important measure, the opponents defeated the bill by filibuster.

This short-term skirmish is a needless delay on this important bill. We will be back next year to once again push for real conservation efforts.Saddam Hussein's brutal invasion of Kuwait, and the massive American military response, have once again reminded us that there is a price for our dependence on foreign oil.

During the 1980s we became more dependent on foreign oil. In 1973, the year of the Arab oil embargo, America imported little more than 36 percent of its oil.

In July of 1989 we passed a significant benchmark in our growing dependence on foreign oil by having to import more than half the oil we use.

OPEC agreed to Saddam's demands by jacking up the price of oil by an additional $5 per barrel. Americans will pay this "Saddam" tax not only at the gas pump, but with the new inflation. Every dollar rise in a barrel of oil translates into 5 cents more per gallon of gas at the pump.

America should take preventive action now so that our economy is not held permanently hostage to the vagaries of Middle East politics.

One constructive way America can respond is by improving automobile fuel performance. In 1975, Congress enacted a Corporate Average Fuel Economy - CAFE - standard. CAFE requires each auto manufacturer's new car fleet to meet certain fuel economy standards.

Despite the auto industry's dire warnings that CAFE standards were impossible to meet, the original CAFE legislation has contributed to a dramatic improvement in auto mileage.

During the years this legislation has been in effect, auto gas mileage has doubled with no loss of performance or interior size. Such prodigious results have prevented billions of dollars from going abroad to oil producer bank accounts, and billions of tons of carbon dioxide from spewing into our air.

But the fuel economy standard is frozen in place at 27.5 mpg. This standard was a worthy goal for the '70s and '80s, but our growing dependence on foreign oil and environmental and economic problems demand significant improvements.

A goal of improving fuel efficiency by 40 percent by the end of the century is a realistic proposal. The Transportation Department estimates that such an improvement would save some 49.1 billion gallons of gasoline, or more than 2 billion barrels of oil.

This figure is very conservative, reflecting only the first year of the 40 percent increase in auto fleet fuel economy.

The single best way to improve the existing CAFE legislation is to require auto manufacturers, both domestic and foreign, to achieve the same percentage improvement in their CAFE standards.

This approach would require the automobile industry to make changes in its production plans, which are set several years in advance. For this reason, a new CAFE bill should provide the industry with time to meet the new goals.

Rather than repeat the yearly benchmarks of the first CAFE bill, goals should be set in advance and the industry should be given time to adjust production plans.

Production plans must change, we must improve fuel economy and we must reduce our dependence on an unstable source of oil.