WASHINGTON -- Automakers and their allies suffered a stunning defeat in the U.S. Senate on Thursday.
Without public debate and without a roll call vote, the Senate adopted an amendment to require cars and trucks to meet a combined fuel economy average of 35 mpg by 2020 -- a 40 percent increase from todays vehicles.
The full Senate approved the energy bill on a 65-27 vote shortly before midnight. The bill now moves to the House of Representatives for consideration.
A milder alternative, for which the industry had fought hard, did not even come up for a vote.
It is a very special day, said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., in declaring victory. A longtime advocate of tougher standards, Feinstein has long called for closing what she calls the SUV loophole, which allows many passenger-carrying vehicles to qualify for weaker truck standards.
She and other proponents of far tougher standards tried to satisfy concerns of senators from Michigan during extensive negotiations, but in the end they could not find common ground, Feinstein said in Senate floor remarks Thursday night.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., had led an effort to win approval for an amendment calling for standards of 36 mpg for cars by 2022 and 30 mpg for trucks by 2025.
Dan Becker, director of the global warming program at the Sierra Club and a longtime lobbyist for tougher standards, said he suspects Levin didnt bring his measure up because it would have found little support.
Still the speed with which momentum grew against the industry is noteworthy. The tide began to turn when Democrats won control of Congress last November. Concerns about global warming, oil imports and gasoline prices were all factors.
The industry unleashed its formidable lobbying forces this week, with manufacturing executives, dealers and others meeting face-to-face with lawmakers across Capitol Hill , but to little avail.
The provisions adopted Thursday were labeled a compromise by some, but they offered little consolation to the industry. Regulators could void the 35 mpg standard in 2020 if there is clear and convincing evidence that it is not cost-effective, Feinstein said.
Feinstein did offer to work with Michigan senators on other legislation to provide assistance to the industry in meeting the tougher standards.
The focus on fuel economy will next turn to the House of Representatives, but proponents there of far tougher standards will be emboldened by the Senate action.
Earlier Thursday, the Senate blocked expanded tax breaks for producers of alternative fuels and new tax credits for owners of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.
The benefits were part of a $29 billion tax package that Senate Democratic leaders wanted to attach to the comprehensive energy. The setback for the tax provisions was blamed on Republicans who opposed a provision that called for higher taxes on oil companies.
The $700 million in tax credits for plug-in hybrids would have gone both to people who convert existing gasoline-electric hybrids to plug-in capability and to those who buy new vehicles, such as General Motors planned Chevrolet Volt.
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