Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is predicting swift approval for an extension of the popular "cash-for-clunkers" program, which is rapidly running out of money because of surging demand from consumers eager to purchase new cars with federal help.
Senate approval of a House-passed measure would send a $2 billion extension of the program to the White House for President Obama's signature. But there were questions. Republicans said Reid would have to let them offer changes that could dramatically slow the measure's progress.
Uncertainties aside, the comments by Reid and Senate Republicans added up to a potential path to passage for legislation extending the program before it runs out of money at the end of the week, when the Senate recesses.
"We'll pass cash for clunkers before we leave here," Reid told reporters after the Democrats lunched with Obama. Reid did not specifically mention the House-passed bill or whether he would allow Republicans to propose amendments as they're demanding.
Back on Capitol Hill at midday, Sen. Jim DeMint, a conservative Republican from South Carolina, told reporters he did not intend to block the legislation.
"It's not my intention right now," he said.
Democrats as well as Republicans had raised concerns about an extension of the program, and it was not clear how those problems might be dealt with in future bills. Some lawmakers wanted tougher emissions standards, and some Democrats said the program should be limited to lower-income car-owners. Republicans raised concerns about cost.
Under the program, car-owners may trade in their old models for new cars that achieve significantly higher gas mileage. The federal subsidies total up to $4,500.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the popular program has allowed thousands of Americans to buy new cars at time when the economy is still in recession and needs a boost in consumer spending.
"I think the last thing any politician wants to do is cut off the opportunity for somebody who wants to get a rebate to buy a new automobile," said LaHood, a former Republican congressman from Illinois.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina predicted that the Senate would approve it. "I hope it comes out of the stimulus program and doesn't add to the debt," Graham said in an interview on NBC's "Today" show. "I think the Senate will act this week and get some of the clunkers off the road."
On Monday, the White House warned that the program could come to an abrupt halt Friday if the Senate didn't act favorably on a bill passed by the House last week transferring $2 billion to the program from an economic stimulus account that had been set aside to subsidize renewable energy. The infusion of new money would carry the program through September, said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.
Through early Tuesday, the clunkers program had recorded 157,000 transactions worth $664 million. Eighty-three percent of the vehicles traded in were trucks or SUVs, while 60% of the vehicles purchased were passengers cars, for an average increase in fuel efficiency of 61%, he said.
Backers of the program picked up support Monday from three lawmakers who wanted the program limited to the purchase of even more fuel-efficient vehicles.