Congress Races to Save “Cash for Clunkers”


cash-for-clunkersThe House raced today to pass legislation pouring an additional $2 billion into the popular – but financially strapped – “cash for clunkers” car purchase program.  Reps. Sander Levin, D-Mich., and Betty Sutton, D-Ohio, revealed the floor plan after he and other lawmakers were assured by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood that the program would continue at least through today while the Obama administration looked for more money.

Democrats in both the House and Senate were exploring the possibility of votes as early as Friday to replenish the funding.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Friday that the program is still “up and running,” reports CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller.

“If you were planning on going to buy a car this weekend, using this program, this program continues to run,” Gibbs told reporters.

He would not commit to any timeframe beyond that.

But Gibbs said administration officials and bipartisan leaders of Congress were working Friday morning “to find and develop ways to continue to fund this program.”

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said it wasn’t clear when a Senate vote would be held.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said about 40,000 new vehicles had been purchased through the program but dealers estimate another 200,000 vehicles have been sold in transactions that have not yet been completed through the program.

As CBS News correspondent Nancy Cordes reports, two big questions for lawmakers and the administration loom: How could they have so vastly overestimated how long this money would last and where will they find the cash infusion to keep it going?

Earl Stewart, who owns a Toyota dealership in North Palm Beach, Fla., said the changing messages on the program has created confusion among his customers and his staff. Stewart’s accounting department also could only enter about a dozen of the 47 sales he made into the government Web site set up to handle the transactions, leaving him wondering if he will get refunded for the remaining vouchers.

With so much uncertainty surrounding the program, Stewart said he planned to continue to sell cars under the program Friday but would delay delivering the new vehicles and scrapping the trade-ins. Drivers would be put in loaners until he is abosolutely sure the program is still going.

“It’s been a total panic with my customers and my sales staff. We are running in one direction and they are running in another direction,” he said.

Through late Wednesday, 22,782 vehicles had been purchased through the program and nearly $96 million had been spent. But dealers raised concerns about large backlogs in the processing of the deals in the government system, prompting the suspension.

A survey of 2,000 dealers by the National Automobile Dealers Association found about 25,000 deals had not yet been approved by NHTSA, or nearly 13 trades per store. It raised concerns that with about 23,000 dealers taking part in the program, auto dealers may already have surpassed the 250,000 vehicle sales funded by the $1 billion program.

“There’s a significant backlog of ‘cash for clunkers’ deals that make us question how much funding is still available in the program,” said Bailey Wood, a spokesman for the dealers association.

Alan Helfman, general manager of River Oaks Chrysler Jeep in Houston, said he was worried that the government wouldn’t pay for some of the clunker deals his dealership has signed because they aren’t far enough along in the process.

His dealership has done paperwork on about 20 sales under the clunker program, but in some cases the titles haven’t been obtained yet or the vehicles aren’t yet on his lot.

“There’s no doubt I’m going to get hammered on a deal or two,” Helfman said.

The clunkers program was set up to boost U.S. auto sales and help struggling automakers through the worst sales slump in more than a quarter-century. Sales for the first half of the year were down 35 percent from the same period in 2008, and analysts are predicting only a modest recovery during the second half of the year.

So far this year, sales are running under an annual rate of 10 million light vehicles, but as recently as 2007, automakers sold more than 16 million cars and light trucks in the United States.

Even before the suspension, some in Congress were seeking more money for the auto sales stimulus. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., wrote in a letter to House leaders on Wednesday requesting additional funding for the program.

“This is simply the most stimulative $1 billion the federal government has spent during the entire economic downturn,” Miller said Thursday. “The federal government must come up with more money, immediately, to keep this program going.”

Michigan lawmakers planned to meet on Friday to discuss the program.

Brendan Daly, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said they would work with “the congressional sponsors and the administration to quickly review the results of the initiative.”

General Motors Co. spokesman Greg Martin said Thursday the automaker hopes “there’s a will and way to keep the CARS program going a little bit longer.”

{CBS News/ Newscenter}