WASHINGTON — The Senate will approve another $2 billion for the popular "cash for clunkers" program, probably by the end of the week, confident Democrats predicted Tuesday as Republican efforts to block the funding faded.
"We'll pass cash for clunkers. Before we leave here," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "The vast majority will be voting for this," added Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. The Senate is scheduled to begin a month-long summer recess Friday.
Many Republicans, realizing that constituents and auto dealers were pushing hard to continue the program, reluctantly agreed.
"I don't get a sense anyone will block it," said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee.
The program apparently exhausted its original $1 billion in a few days. The program allows consumers to get up to $4,500 if they trade in old gas-guzzling vehicles for newer, more fuel efficient models.
The Obama administration, which Monday warned that the program would end if the Senate didn't go along with the House of Representatives' bill to add $2 billion to the program, was upbeat Tuesday.
"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 Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
Many GOP senators, and some Democrats, still had reservations about adding the funding for the program.
"I understand why people like free money. I like free money too. This is part of an unfortunate trend towards reckless spending,' said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
"People need to know what's next. Cash for shoes? Cash for groceries?" added Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala.
Any senator could still stop the process with procedural roadblocks; it takes only one dissident lawmaker to impede progress on most legislation. Those who were expected to provide resistance, however, seemed to be more conciliatory Tuesday.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., said Sunday on Fox News: "This is crazy to try to rush this thing through again while they're trying to rush through health care . . . . We've got to slow this thing down." Asked Tuesday if he'd block the effort, DeMint said: "It's not my intent right now."
Many said they would seek changes to the bill, such as a cap on how much could be spent or a pause in the program to better evaluate how funds were being spent.
Adding anything to the legislation, however, could derail the program, since it would then need consent from the House, which isn't scheduled to reconvene until Sept. 8.
Sixty votes will be needed to overcome procedural hurdles and keep the bill "clean," and it appeared at least that many votes are available, as many Republicans appear ready to join Democrats.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is backing the additional funding after seeing data that show the first batch of new cars got 61 percent better gas mileage than those traded in.
Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., called the new money "the best use we can put that stimulus money to," and Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., reported "I'm hearing a lot of support for this."
Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., said he still had concerns about the source of the funds, but he likes the idea that, "This program is actually economic stimulus, not stimulus for government."
The House bill, passed Friday, would take the money from a renewable energy loan fund. Many Senate Democrats have balked at that source, but said this week they were unlikely to let that reservation stand in the way of keeping the program alive.
"There is significant opposition in the Senate to use this energy loan fund to finance this," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
She and other senators said, however, that an alternative funding source could be worked out after Congress returns next month from its summer recess.
Another concern is the program's endpoint. If it's so popular, senators are asking, will $2 billion more be enough? Where will all this end?
That too, senators said, could be addressed later.
"The $2 billion ought to be enough to get it through the remainder of August, and then those of us that really care about this . . . will sit down and take a look again at the figures," Feinstein said, "And then by September we will know much more."
What they know now is that the public is clamoring to keep the program alive, an effort aided by the National Automobile Dealers Association and the Obama administration.
Dealers touted new sales figures, and Ford reported that its sales rose 2.4 percent last month over July a year ago, the first such increase since November 2007.
So far, the cash for clunkers program has logged 157,000 transactions valued at $664 million, according to transportation department data, and enough money is left to help generate another 67,600 sales. The extra $2 billion is expected to mean sales of about another 500,000 vehicles.
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