House adds cash to 'clunkers' program; Senate vote needed

The Obama administration promised Friday that the financially strapped "cash for clunkers" program would be alive at least through the weekend, and the House of Representatives approved additional money for the program later in the day.

Senate action is expected next week.

"If you were planning on going to buy a car this weekend, using this program, this program continues to run," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters.

The House passed a bill 316-109 that would pour $2 billion from the economic stimulus program into the "cash-for-clunkers" initiative and give consumers more time to take advantage of trade-in rebates up to $4,500 for older cars.

President Obama said initially there had been skeptics about the car-purchase program, but that now "we're already seeing a dramatic increase in showroom traffic" across the country. He said the program "gives consumers a break" and helps to reduce pollution.

Before the vote, 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."

Members of the Ohio and Michigan congressional delegations huddled on Capitol Hill to discuss ways to keep the popular program alive.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said it wasn't clear when a Senate vote would be held.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said about 40,000 new vehicles had been purchased through the program but dealers estimate another 200,000 vehicles have been sold in transactions that have not yet been completed.

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.

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