WASHINGTON - The last significant obstacle to a long-awaited congressional showdown on corporate average fuel economy standards was eliminated late last week.
With unexpected ease, senators settled a festering dispute over distribution of mass transit funds and opened the door for debate, possibly as early as this week, on a fiscal 2000 transportation spending bill.
During that debate senators will vote on a resolution calling for an end to the freeze on CAFE.
The freeze has been added almost routinely to transportation spending bills for each of the past four fiscal years, but environmental groups this year mounted an unexpectedly aggressive lobbying campaign to end the practice.
Carmakers, through the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, fought back. In August, the alliance ran an advertising campaign in nine states with undecided senators. Last week, with lawmakers back in Washington, they shifted the ads to Capitol Hill publications.
Mike Stanton, chief lobbyist for the alliance, isn't ready to declare victory. He said the industry needs to keep making the case that standards should stay at 27.5 mpg for cars and 20.7 mpg for trucks.
One reason for automaker caution is that environmentalists have a relatively modest hurdle.
They want just 34 of the 100 senators to vote for the resolution to end the freeze. They believe that number would be enough to convince President Clinton to veto the whole fiscal 2000 transportation spending bill - if it, as expected, still contains the freeze language.
Clinton then would know that his veto could be sustained because a two-thirds majority, or 67 senators, is needed for an override.