WASHINGTON - Fuel economy rules will be a hot topic in Senate hearings early next year even though carmakers and their allies have all but won a freeze in standards for the fifth straight year.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, says he wants the committee to take a fresh look at the 25-year-old law that established the corporate average fuel economy standards.
Unlike other conservatives who favor killing CAFE, McCain said he supports the program's energy conservation goals. He said dramatic growth in sales of light trucks is the main reason Congress should consider overhauling the law, but he stopped short of saying he wants to force trucks to be more fuel-efficient.
'The structure of the CAFE statute appears to no longer make sense in light of the current auto market,' McCain said.
He said Congress should probably have a hand in setting fuel economy standards for trucks rather than leaving the job to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
In theory, Congress sets the standard for cars, and NHTSA sets it for trucks. In reality, both have been frozen by riders attached to federal transportation spending bills every year since 1995. The standards are 27.5 mpg for cars and 20.7 mpg for trucks.
On Wednesday, Sept. 29, a House-Senate conference committee approved a bill, including the rider, for fiscal 2000, and the full Congress is likely to send the bill to President Clinton this week. Its main purpose is to fund $50.2 billion in transportation programs in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
Although the Clinton administration expressed its distaste for the CAFE freeze, it is unlikely that Clinton will veto the bill.