WASHINGTON — The White House said Friday that the “cash for clunkers” program was still alive even though new-car shoppers appear to have already snapped up all the $1 billion that Congress had appropriated for it.
Robert Gibbs, a White House spokesman, said the administration was looking for ways to continue the popular new program, which offers $3,500 to $4,500 for people who trade in an old car for a new one with higher fuel economy.
“If you were planning on going to buy a car this weekend using this program, the program continues to run,” he said. “If you meet the requirements of the program, the certificates will be honored.”
Mr. Gibbs said the administration planned to meet with Congressional leaders to find ways to save the program. He declined to say how long the program could continue without an infusion of funds.
“We feel confident that we’ll have a solution that people can agree on moving forward, and that the program continues,” he said.
But Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, underscored the uncertainty about the immediate prospects. “We don’t know how long it will last, so people should go to their car dealers now if they want to take advantage of the program,” he said. “We’re also going to seek additional funding to hopefully make the program last longer.”
As of noon, Democrats in the House were negotiating with Republicans for a “unanimous consent” agreement that would take $2 billion from the Energy Department’s loan guarantee program and give it to the rebate program. But it was not clear that the Senate would act on Friday.
It was also not clear how long the $2 billion would last. Representative Steve Israel, Democrat of New York, predicted it would be enough until Congress returns in September. But he added, “there’s going to be a lot of confusion among consumers. We need to wrap this up today.”
The program has proved a boon to the battered auto industry as it struggles to regain its footing, drawing crowds of customers to some showrooms as dealers aggressively promoted the rebates in ads over the last week.
Representatives of the nation’s car dealers said Thursday that they had been told by the Transportation Department to stop offering the rebates because the funds had been quickly exhausted.
But a White House official then said the program had not been suspended, creating confusion about its status.
There was wide support for an additional appropriation for “cash for clunkers,” with members of the Michigan delegation in the forefront. But support was not unanimous and some members of Congress thought the requirements should be tightened.
Senators Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, and Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, said in a joint statement that “we will insist that any extension of the program requires that the minimum fuel economy improvement for newly purchased vehicles be at least two miles per gallon higher than it is under the enacted Clunkers program.” For cars, the current minimum improvement is five miles a gallon. And, they said, to help low-income car owners take part, they would include vouchers for fuel-efficient used vehicles.
But Representative Ed Markey of Massachusetts, one of the authors of the original bill, called for a simple extension. He declared Thursday night, “Cash for Clunkers may have run out of cash, but America’s consumers haven’t run out of clunkers.” He said it should be extended to cover 1 million vehicles, about four times the number covered so far.
Mr. Markey said so far participants in the program were getting a 69 percent improvement in fuel economy, with the trade-ins being mostly sport utility vehicles, trucks and vans with over 100,000 miles, being replaced with new passenger cars.
Others were outright opposed; Representative Jeb Hensarling, a Texas Republican who sits on the House Budget Committee, called the program “another example of the government picking winners and losers.” The program, he said, “enshrines us as a bailout nation.”
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