Effort to limit air-quality lawsuits dropped from auto bill

WASHINGTON — Jobs took priority over the environment Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

After getting ensnared with an effort to give a $15 billion bailout to the automobile industry, California's air-quality standards took yet another blow when congressional Democrats tried to sidestep a fight with the White House.

Democrats abandoned a plan that would've barred car companies from pursuing lawsuits against California and other states that want to implement tougher tailpipe emission standards.

Backers of California's efforts wanted to attach the plan to the bailout bill, but opponents said it would further hurt the profitability of car manufacturers. The White House threatened to veto the bill if Democrats wouldn't yield.

Under the Federal Clean Air Act, California has the right to set its own vehicle-emissions standards but needs a waiver from the Environmental Protection Agency to do so. The White House consistently has opposed the waiver, angering environmentalists and California lawmakers.

Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, who's chairwoman of the Senate's environment committee, said car manufacturers "should embrace the waiver" instead of fighting California, but she's expecting President-elect Barack Obama to sign it and does not want Congress to address it now.

"My own view is at a time like this, with — with unemployment wreaking havoc in our country, this is not the time to jeopardize 3 million jobs," she told reporters Monday at a news conference. "By the way, those of you who are from California, 200,000 jobs are directly related to the Big Three."

The language prohibiting lawsuits against California was included in the bailout bill as of late Tuesday night. A high-ranking Democratic aide close to the negotiations between Congress and the White House, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the aide wasn't authorized to speak about the bill publicly, said it was removed when it became clear the president wouldn't sign the bill.

The aide said Democrats ultimately decided the matter was largely symbolic because Obama is backing the California waiver and is likely to approve it early next year.

Democratic Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, chairman of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, said the proposed auto bailout offered an opportunity to get California's waiver approved. And he said that auto companies need to stop litigating against states that want to improve air quality.

Markey said that recovery for the automobile industry should require "a change of culture, a culture that answers challenges with innovation rather than lobbying and litigation." Markey authored legislation that resulted in the current fuel economy standards of at least 35 miles per gallon by 2020.


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