'Cash for clunkers' good through Friday; and beyond?

The Obama administration promised on Friday that the financially strapped "cash for clunkers" program would be good at least through the day.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said he got the word from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood as members of the Ohio and Michigan congressional delegations huddled on Capitol Hill to discuss ways to keep the popular program alive.

"Beyond Friday," Levin said, "depends on whether the administration can find some money."

John McEleney, chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Association, said many dealers have been confused about whether the program will be extended and for how long. Many stopped offering the deals Thursday after word came out that the funds available for the refunds had been exhausted.

"We are hoping for some clarity from the White House and Congress before the day is over," McEleney said Friday.

Carmakers and dealers have booked expensive advertising to capitalize on buyers' interest in CARS, and now will be left promoting a tie-in with an uncertain government program — one that wasn't supposed to end until Nov. 1. "Disappointed," said Chrysler spokesman Scott Brown.

"It's too late to recall the ads," says Beau Boeckmann of Galpin Ford, the nation's largest Ford dealer, in Los Angeles. Galpin had done about 100 clunker deals and was hoping for more. " We had increased our ad budget to get the word out. We are very heavy on radio, newspaper and getting direct mail together," Boeckmann says.

"Now what do you tell people when they walk in" for a clunker deal? "It's tough."

One participant in the Capitol Hill meeting said they were examining possible funding sources and whether there were any glitches in the computer system. The participant, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talk, said they were also studying how many dealers had enrolled in the system.

Through Wednesday afternoon, more than 23,000 dealer franchises were participating, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The administration dispatched Brian Deese, a top adviser to the Treasury's auto task force, to the Hill meeting.

On Thursday, word that the program was suspended came from Bailey Wood, legislative director for the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA), which had been called Thursday night by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which administers the program. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., confirmed the suspension as well, saying she had been told by congressional leaders.

But White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said later Thursday that the administration is "evaluating all options" and not suspending the program, causing confusion about its status.

Said Wood: "Obviously the program has been an immense success in stimulating automotive sales."

"The thing has exploded. It has exceeded everyone's expectations," said Miller, who was involved in writing the original legislation, known as CARS, for Car Allowance Rebate System. "Throughout our history, it has been auto sales that have pulled us out of recession. People are more likely to buy cars than houses. Not to be too Pollyannaish, but we're gettin' our mojo back. This could be the pivot" that begins an economic recovery.

The White House said Thursday night that "dealers and consumers should have confidence that all valid CARS transactions that have taken place to date will be honored."

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