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Senators Debate Approving 'Clunker' Extension

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Congress is close to throwing a lot more resources behind the cash for clunkers program. That program offers people money if they trade in their cars for more efficient models.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

It's not clear how much the program really does for the environment. As you can see at npr.org this morning, it takes energy and pollution to build a new car. It may take years of more efficient driving to make up for the damage done.

INSKEEP: But cash for clunkers is popular, so popular that it's running out of money. And lawmakers are deciding whether to extend it.

NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports.

ANDREA SEABROOK: Before the House of Representatives bolted out of town last week, it managed to pass an extension of the cash for clunkers program, two billion more dollars, enough to keep the money flowing through August, officials say. Not everyone agreed to it. Take Texas Republican Jeb Hensarling, who worries about ailing chicken farmers in his state.

Representative JEB HENSARLING (Republican, Texas): Maybe we should have a cash for cluckers program and pay people to eat chicken.

SEABROOK: But it did get more than 300 votes in favor - a big majority - and that likely reflects what lawmakers are hearing about Cash for Clunkers from their constituents: they like it. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood spoke on MSNBC yesterday.

Secretary RAY LAHOOD (Department of Transportation): It's good for car buyers, it's good for Americans, it's good for American workers. It's a wildly popular program. People that make automobiles are very happy. People that sell automobiles are for the first time in a long time able to make a living.

SEABROOK: The Transportation Department has been collecting data on Cash for Clunkers, and officials briefed key senators yesterday. Eighty percent of the vehicles being traded in are trucks and SUVs, they say. The most popular car people are buying: the Ford Focus. On average, buyers end up with a car that gets nearly ten miles per gallon more than the one they traded in.

And close to half the sales are from the big three American automakers. New York Democrat Chuck Schumer said yesterday, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Senator CHUCK SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): It's working as a stimulus, it's working to help families, it's working to improve mileage. What we need to do here is not put on the brakes but step on the gas, keep the program going.

SEABROOK: But this doesn't mean an extension is a done deal. Though many do want to extend Cash for Clunkers, there's one thing all senators would probably agree with: they do not like to feel forced by the House, and that is exactly what is happening to the Senate.

Ross Baker teaches political science at Rutgers.

Professor ROSS BAKER (Rutgers University): It's an institutional conceit, if you will, that this is an institution which is supposed to be thoughtful, which is not supposed to act under the gun. The gun that is least effective to use on the Senate is the one marked United States House of Representatives.

SEABROOK: Then again, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot the Senate can do about that right now. It has to pass the House version or nothing, because the House is gone for the summer. And if it's going to do it, it has to do it fast; otherwise, according to the White House, the program will run out of money by Friday.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrea Seabrook covers Capitol Hill as NPR's Congressional Correspondent.