WASHINGTON - Some lawmakers are chipping away at federal funds for the joint government-industry program to develop 80-mpg family cars.
If the funding cuts are approved, they would occur at a critical time for the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles.
Partnership members hope before year-end to decide which technologies deserve more concentrated research, which should be abandoned for now, and which should be put on a track for longer-term development.
Some of the threatened funding would be used by the EPA to help find ways to reduce pollution emitted by advanced diesel engine designs.
Partnership participants have hinted strongly the designs are likely this fall to be labeled as technology that deserves more concentrated research.
But congressional committees writing fiscal 1998 spending bills 'have been nickel-diming (the partnership) in a variety of different ways,' said Randy Steer, CFO for the program in the White House's Office of Management and Budget.
The administration seeks $281 million for the partnership in fiscal 1998. But budget bills in Congress contain about $255 million. In fiscal 1997, $263 million was allocated for the program.
The new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
'It's a fight every year' to get money for the partnership, but until now there have been at least slight increases in each budget, Steer said. If current measures are enacted, there would be 'sort of a retrenchment,' he added.
Possible foes of the partnership are difficult to identify at this point, because federal funding is spread among a half-dozen federal agencies. So a series of congressional committees have a role in writing both authorizing legislation for the program and the spending bills.
Vice President Al Gore, who last week presided over two days of Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles technical meetings about advanced diesels, was mildly defensive in a public briefing about the administration's interest in spending partnership money on a near-term problem like diesel emissions.
'The majority of the government's investment in this project has been, and will continue to be, directed to long-range, higher-risk research, including solutions other than the internal combustion engine,' he said.
One participant in last week's technical meetings, William Powers, Ford Motor Co. vice president for research, explained in a brief interview the evolution of the multitiered approach to the program.
'We're going to be pushing to meet the dates we committed to. At the same time (we will) try and get a short list of promising longer-term technologies and keep a full-court press on those as well,' he said.
The Big 3 committed to have demonstration vehicles built by 2000 and production prototypes by 2004.
But 'if there are technologies on a learning curve, like fuel cells, you can't walk away from that,' Powers said.