WASHINGTON - President Clinton says he envisions automotive fuel efficiency equal to 'hundreds of miles from a gallon of gas,' but the last budget of his administration will stress proposals with far more modest goals.
The budget, to be unveiled today, Feb. 7, will propose, for the third year in a row, tax credits up to $3,000 to encourage people to buy fuel-efficient vehicles, such as those with hybrid power. It also would extend an existing credit of up to $4,000 for the purchase or lease of an electric vehicle.
In addition, Clinton will seek a $30 million increase in the federal share for joint government-industry research into ultra-fuel-efficient vehicles, to a total of $255 million.
Automakers are showing more and more interest in the tax credit idea, in part to help stave off tougher fuel economy standards.
'It's right on target,' said General Motors spokesman Bill Noack.
A LONG SHOT
But even that modest proposal remains a long shot in the Republican-controlled Congress.
A spokesman for House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Archer, R-Texas, said there is only so much money available for tax cuts and credits. And Archer's priorities are to ease the income tax marriage penalty, to trim or eliminate the estate tax - a favorite of car dealer associations - and to encourage saving and investment.
Still, the White House and Congress tacitly have agreed that, with soaring budget surpluses, they can loosen purse strings for some programs. Clinton, in his Jan. 27 State of the Union address, listed his favorites.
He cited, for example, the joint government-industry research, called Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, and applauded the 70- to 80-mpg concept cars automakers exhibited last month.
WHAT HE MEANT TO SAY
Then, in the context of fighting global warming, Clinton said, 'Before you know it, efficient production of biofuels will give us the equivalent of hundreds of miles from a gallon of gas.' Industry lobbyists were baffled by the statement.
Carol Werner, executive director of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, a nonprofit research organization, said she understands what Clinton meant:
The administration will propose an increase in funding for research on converting farm products and waste into fuel, and if such fuel were used in ultra-fuel-efficient vehicles, the moves ultimately have the effect of replacing vast amounts of petroleum.
In any case, automakers worry that Clinton created unrealistic public expectations for 70- to 80-mpg vehicles, according to Gloria Bergquist, vice president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. Said Bergquist: 'It takes a long time to go from the blackboard to the blacktop.'