Automakers thwart push for military ships

WASHINGTON - Automakers appear headed for a victory in their fight to retain the right to use the ships of their choice to import vehicles to the United States.

Last week, Congress was preparing to drop a plan to require that some imported vehicles be carried on ships that are built with federal subsidies and are capable of being switched quickly to military cargo.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the House of Representatives approved a bill, called a defense authorization, that contained the requirement. But lawmakers negotiating compromises between House and Senate versions of the $343 billion legislation deleted the requirement, sources said. Instead, Congress is to call on the secretary of defense to report on the availability of ships to carry military cargo.

"We could probably live with that," said Paul Ryan, director of commercial affairs for the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, which lobbied heavily against the proposed requirement.

AIAM contended that the ships built for civilian and military use do not charge competitive rates and could be withdrawn from commercial service at any time, creating untenable uncertainty for automakers.

Some automakers, such as Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. and Hyundai Motor Co., use ships owned and operated by parent or affiliated companies.

Joining AIAM in opposing the proposal were the American International Automobile Dealers Association and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which includes the Big 3 as well as import-brand car companies.

AIADA argued that shipping restrictions could lead to a shortage of certain vehicles and higher prices for dealers and consumers.

Ryan and others who lobbied against the requirement were cautious not to declare outright victory.

That's because other disputed provisions, not related to the automobile industry, still were being negotiated by House and Senate conferees last week. The biggest question was whether there should be another round of military base closings. President Bush and his allies say savings are needed to pay for the war on terrorism. Many lawmakers with military bases in their districts are reluctant to consider more closings.

The proposal to require vehicle shipments on vessels also capable of military use was sponsored by Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa. The goal was to get more of the ships built.

A spokesman for the congressman declined comment Wednesday, Nov. 28, on developments in the conference committee, which has been meeting behind closed doors.

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