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Driving along Pennsylvania Avenue in a brand-new, shiny Chrysler, spreading the gospel of booming manufacturing plants and workers with full health care and pension plans, used to be the auto industry’s calling card in Washington. How times have changed. The industry is struggling to compete with foreign automakers; Ford Motor Co., the former titan of the U.S. auto industry, is laying off workers by the thousands; companies are mired in lawsuits over now-defunct pension plans; and environmental issues long brushed under the rug are facing scrutiny even among Republicans. With all this, the glory days of lobbying for the industry are long gone. Add to that the growing consensus among the American public that global warming is a real issue of concern, not simply a figment of Al Gore’s imagination. Well-known for blocking legislation over issues such as increased fuel standards when they were in the minority, the Democrats in Congress have now backed industry executives into a corner, forcing them, at least publicly, to rescind any hope of maintaining the status quo. Executives from Toyota Motor North America, General Motors Corp., DaimlerChrysler, and Ford sounded a conciliatory note before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee last Wednesday, agreeing to a mandatory carbon cap on tailpipe emissions, to consider a new regulatory regime, and to create a system that regulates the emissions of carbon dioxide from their vehicles, alone or in tandem with the carbon content of fuels. “Climate change is occurring,” James Press, president of Toyota, said during testimony at the hearing. “We have the responsibility to be a part of the solution.” The tone was a striking change from years past, when the industry relied on the Bush administration as an ally willing to rubber-stamp rollbacks on auto-emission requirements. Yet, just because Congress is looking to push through industrywide changes doesn’t mean automakers are ready to roll over and take it. Instead, their lobbyists have been laying the groundwork to stave off hurtful legislative language by meeting with lawmakers and saying their clients are willing to comply with new standards, but not at the expense of their bottom line. “Tell us where you want us to go and we’ll get there” is what Toyota lobbyists now tell lawmakers and their staff, Toyota’s national public affairs and issues manager, Martha Voss, says. “But that’s without [lawmakers] saying you have to make all of your vehicles ethanol, bio-diesel, or that kind of thing. As long as it is fair, technologically feasible, and cost-effective, we don’t have a problem with a mandate.” A SEA CHANGE The industry’s new tone may be in part because the Energy and Commerce Committee has been trying to secure automakers’ support for the past month — even going so far as sending an industrywide letter to dozens of oil, gas, and energy organizations and lobbying arms, including the American Petroleum Institute, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Alliance of Auto Manufacturers, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. But lobbyists know who is in charge. The concession would not have been possible without the pushing of committee Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.), long considered the political godfather of Detroit’s once-thriving auto industry. Lobbyists and Hill staffers say the industry was resisting the conciliatory tone, even just a week ago. “Dingell had to twist their arms to get them to testify,” says Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization. “I think that Dingell realized that if he allowed the industry to push back, do nothing, and still allowed them to testify, his credibility and chairmanship was at risk” for looking too subservient to the industry. In an industry long dominated by Republican power players such as President George W. Bush’s former chief of staff, Andrew Card, who was GM’s chief lobbyist and the industry’s main voice on Capitol Hill as head of the now-defunct American Automobile Manufacturers Association, automakers are scrambling to beef up their Democratic ties in-house and hire new outside counsel to shore up support among members of the House and reckon with Congress’ ambitious green agenda. And the man expected to get the industry’s act together has also changed, as well. A month into his new job, former Rep. David McCurdy (D-Okla.), the new president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, has been making the rounds on the Hill on behalf of automakers. McCurdy replaces Fred Webber, a Republican who held legislative posts in the Nixon and Ford administrations. The automakers continue to dole out big money to sway Congress. The four auto companies at last week’s hearing spent nearly $30 million on in-house lobbying in 2006, according to Senate lobying records. That doesn’t include spending on outside lobbyists for the companies. Toyota, for example, paid outside lobbyists, including Loeffler Group, Brown Rudnick, and Capitol Hill Consulting Group, more than $500,000 to lobby on issues including automotive emissions standards, according to Senate lobbying records. The companies were all active contributors during the 2006 election cycle. GM’s and Ford’s political action committees gave the maximum $10,000 contribution to Dingell’s 2006 re-election bid. DaimlerChrysler’s PAC gave the incoming chairman $9,925. With change afoot, this year the companies are expected to spend even more money lobbying Congress. Toyota is using Democrat Michael Lewman of Brown Rudnick and Republican David Thompson of Capitol Hill Consulting Group, a former longtime aide to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), among others, to do its bidding on Capitol Hill. Toyota is also working to shore up support among lawmakers such as Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee who also has Toyota sales headquarters in her district. They also meet with Rep. Chip Pickering (R-Miss.), also a committee member, in whose district Toyota will soon open a plant. “We have had ongoing discussions with a variety of members on these issues over several years,” Voss says. Ford recently began balancing its in-house operation by bringing on Democratic lobbyist Bruce Andrews, formerly with Quinn Gillespie & Associates, who joined the company March 5. GM is also looking to hire a senior-level Democrat, according to a spokesman. The company already has Democratic heavyweight Steve Ricchetti, a former deputy chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, and former Rep. Steve Symms (R-Idaho), whose firm, Parry, Romani, DeConcini & Symms, is lobbying on the fuel-standards issue. A GREEN FUTURE? All eyes are on the auto industry as a test case for what Congress will do on global-warming issues. Analysts who monitor the energy sector, such as Lou Hayden, a policy analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, says the institute is studying the impact that congressional proposals would have on the oil and gas sector. “We do expect to engage with Congress a lot over the coming months,” Hayden says. “Usually the focus is on the consumer. But we don’t know what kind of cost implication this could have for refineries.” While the auto executives stumbled over each other at last week’s hearing, eager to show their green credentials, some realized that perhaps they went too far. In response to a question about whether the industry would back a mandatory carbon cap on tailpipe emissions, Rick Wagoner, GM’s chairman and CEO, said, “The devil is always in the details.” Despite pledging cooperation with the new Democratic Congress, so far all of the companies are not in favor of the most recent bill. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), who was chosen by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to head a select committee on climate change, introduced legislation on the eve of the hearing that would increase fuel-economy standards by 4 percent a year — a number supported by the Bush administration. While the auto industry remains staunchly opposed to that measure, it’s not the only legislation with which it will have to grapple. The subcommittee’s chairman, Frederick Boucher (D-Va.), and Dingell plan to work on climate-change legislation. Although no bill has yet been drafted, Boucher says his goal is to have legislation on the floor of the House by the fall. And even the patience of their longtime friend, Dingell, is wearing thin. The Michigan lawmaker, who at one point declared he’d stay clear of increasing CAFE standards, is now singing a more melancholy tune. “Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are frustrated,” Dingell said at the hearing. “My dear friends, I am frustrated.”
Joe Crea can be contacted at [email protected]. Osita Iroegbu can be contacted at [email protected].

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