There was new hope for the Cash for Clunkers program late today, when two senators lifted their objections to an emergency bill passed by the House of Representatives last week to pump for funding into the popular program.
While many roadblocks still remain, with the blessing of senators Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, passing a clunkers refill by the end of the week suddenly seemed a lot more likely.
Feinstein and Collins had opposed extending the bill unless the fuel efficiency standard for eligible cars was raised. They said they changed their minds because, on average, people who have taken advantage of the program have bought cars that get 9 miles per gallon better gas mileage than the clunkers they traded in, which was better than expected.
As it rushed to get out of town for the August recess, the House voted last week to add $2 billion to keep the Cash for Clunkers program afloat.
But the Senate, in session for one more week, hadn't seemed to be in much of a hurry, and that alone is enough to put the program's future in doubt.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., suggested on the Senate floor today that the plan is another type of taxpayer bailout for the auto industry and questioned why the program should get billions more dollars, "before anybody even had time to figure out what happened to the first billion."
The GOP senator called the program another example of "the administration's tendency to miss the mark on economic estimates."
The program, which pays consumers cash for trading in gas guzzling cars for fuel efficient new cars, turned out to be wildly popular. Officials now say without more funding the program will be out of cash by midweek.
"I think if it doesn't happen this week, it's unlikely that we'll make it to the weekend with a program that can continue," said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs during the White House briefing today. Gibbs estimated that an additional $2 billion in funding could stretch the program through September.
Citing unreleased National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data given to their staffs, Feinstein and Collins said consumers taking advantage of the clunkers program have bought more fuel efficient vehicles than they had to.
"The statistics are much better than everyone thought," Feinstein said during a Capitol Hill press conference. "It's much more fuel efficient than anyone thought it would be," she said.
Feinstein and Collins, two original sponsors of the measure, were frustrated when its fuel economy requirements were watered down and last Friday demanded tougher fuel economy requirements in order to pass the legislation.
But they pointed to numbers given to their offices by the NHTSA, which showed that of the 120,000 sales so far, the average fuel economy for a purchased car was 25.4 mpg. For cars it was over 28 miles, for SUVs over 21 and for trucks over 16.
While 34 percent of consumers receiving the credits bought SUVs and minivans, Feinstein said 83 percent of the vehicles turned in were trucks and SUVs, and the average refund being given was $4,327. She said NHTSA expects another 130,000 cars can be bought through the program before it reaches $1 billion.