WASHINGTON -- If politics is the fine art of compromise, the Senate produced a masterpiece on the delicate issue of auto fuel efficiency standards that left both sides claiming they'd won.
Sen. Spencer Abraham, R-Mich., who faces a tough re-election race in his auto-industry state, said the compromise last week was ''a big victory for Michigan'' because it maintained the current freeze on Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards.
On the other side, Daniel Becker of the Sierra Club, a major environmental group, said the deal allowing the Transportation Department and the National Academy of Sciences to at least study changes in CAFE standards was a ''major victory for consumers and the environment.''
Congress passed the CAFE law in the oil crisis year of 1975, requiring the auto industry to reach certain fuel efficiency standards. For more than a decade, they have remained at 20.7 miles per gallon for light trucks, including sport utility vans, and 27.5 mpg for passenger cars.
The auto industry says tougher standards would drive up the costs of new cars and force people to buy vehicles that are smaller and less safe. Since 1995, the Republican-led House has included language in the annual transportation spending bill banning the administration from even studying the issue.
Efforts in the Senate to remove the House ban have been led by Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., a conservative seeking re-election this year in a state where the environment is an important political issue.
He has joined environmental groups in asserting that the industry now has the know-how to produce vehicles that burn less fuel, thus saving consumers money, slowing global warming and reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
In past years, the Senate has acceded to the House position. This year, Gorton, joined by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., stepped up the pressure, pointing to skyrocketing gas prices that have grabbed the nation's attention.
The result was a compromise Thursday with Abraham and senators close to the auto industry.
When they negotiate this year's transportation bill with the House, senators will argue that the Transportation Department and the National Academy of Sciences should be allowed to study CAFE standards and report their findings to Congress by July 1, 2001. Nothing would go into effect without congressional approval.
It is uncertain whether the House will go along. But Gorton called it a surprising and stunning victory, ''the first breakthrough in more than six years'' on the CAFE issue.
Abraham saw it a little differently. The compromise, he said, requires that any study on CAFE standards also consider the impact on vehicle safety and auto jobs, and ensures that Congress will have the final say over any changes in fuel efficiency standards.
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