Lawmakers to vote on plug-in hybrid bill today

Utility and auto industry groups urge Obama to help with their cause.
The auto industry and electric utilities asked President Barack Obama on Tuesday to set up a task force to promote plug-in hybrids before a Senate committee vote today on an $11-billion plug-in hybrid bill that lacks industry backing.

The moves come as Senate Democrats consider a push for some kind of energy bill in the wake of the BP oil spill, legislation Republicans say can't be properly considered in the short time Congress will be in session before the November election.

Obama wants to put 1 million plug-in hybrids on U.S. roads by 2015. Several major automakers -- including General Motors, Ford, Toyota, Honda and Volkswagen -- have committed to offering the technology.

But the automakers and environmental groups worry that few consumers will overcome the $15,000 to $20,000 additional cost of a plug-in hybrid compared with a traditional vehicle -- even with federal credits of up to $7,500 -- and especially with forecasts showing little change in gasoline prices.

In a letter Tuesday, four trade groups representing U.S. and foreign automakers, electric utilities and electric vehicle firms told the Obama administration that a task force could coordinate federal and local programs to boost plug-in hybrids, while also running public awareness campaigns.

Those groups expressed reservations last month about a bill from Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., which set a goal of having half of the nation's new cars and trucks as hybrid or electric models within 20 years. Among the chief concerns: a proposal limiting some government aid for plug-in hybrids to a maximum of 15 cities.

Advocates said Tuesday that the bill would be changed to spread aid nationwide. Dorgan's office did not immediately return messages seeking comment. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is scheduled to amend and possibly approve Dorgan's bill today. The committee also will consider a bill by Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., pushing new government research into more efficient vehicles.

Senate Democrats have wrestled with whether to write an energy bill that imposes caps on greenhouse gases, try for a pared-back bill without such limits or wait until after the election. Few Republicans have voiced support for greenhouse gas caps. Environmentalists contend that without caps, little can change.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Democrats would meet Thursday to decide on a path forward.
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