WASHINGTON - Even though Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp. say they are eager to sell more alternative-fueled vehicles, they are not actively taking sides in the bruising battle unfolding in Congress over federal subsidies for ethanol fuel.
The ethanol dispute is one of hundreds that will be negotiated over the next several weeks by key members of Congress - with the White House looking over their shoulders.
Select groups of lawmakers, called conference committees, are trying to iron out differences between House-passed and Senate-passed versions of bills that would implement the big budget deal between Congress and President Clinton.
While the public is focused on plans to trim Medicare and to cut assorted taxes a total of $85 billion over five years, scores of interest groups are jockeying for advantage in the fine print of the legislation.
Automobile dealers, for example, are lobbying hard on details of competing provisions to ease the federal estate tax.
Mary Wertschnig, spokeswoman for the ethanol industry, said, 'We're optimistic, but we can never predict what will happen in conference.'
The Senate bill would extend the tax break to 2007 while letting it decline slightly. It currently is set at 5.4 cents per gallon of gasoline that contains 10 percent ethanol, made from corn. The White House has indicated support for the extension.
But House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Archer, R-Texas, said he will be firm in negotiations in support of the House bill that would let the subsidy expire in 2000 and save the U.S. Treasury about $600 million a year.
Archer has not yet taken aim at a separate income tax credit that can be earned by blenders of E85, the alternative fuel that consists of 85 percent ethanol.
But ethanol industry advocates say privately there is a definite link between the two. If the subsidy for 10 percent ethanol expired, the industry as a whole would suffer, and it would have more difficulty expanding the E85 market. The United States has only 35 public E85 fueling stations.
Ford and Chrysler both recently announced expanded production of flexible-fuel vehicles that burn either gasoline or E85 or some other mix of the two. By offering the vehicles, the companies get extra credits toward federal fuel economy standards.
Ford spokeswoman Karen Holtschneider said her company supports the ethanol subsidy but its Washington lobbyists are not actively working on the issue.
Likewise, Chrysler lobbyist Brenda Day said her company has been neutral on the ethanol subsidy, mostly because it is devoting time and energy to other issues.
But Day and others confirmed the automakers are in a no-win situation.
If they took one position, they would offend the chairman of the important tax-writing committee of the House.
If they took the other position, they would irk lawmakers from farm states, including the Democratic leaders of both chambers, Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri and Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota.
General Motors has focused more on electric and natural gas-powered vehicles and does not have a large ethanol effort.