Attention car buyers: There’s still time to get in on the "cash for clunkers" rebate rush.
The House hastened to refuel the program on Friday, voting to pour in $2 billion to prop up the trade-in deals that have all but overwhelmed suddenly booming car dealers and exhausted the $1 billion the government had set aside. The Senate has yet to act, but the White House said weekend deals would count, no matter what.
The program, only a week old, was designed to encourage owners of pollution-spewing gas guzzlers to trade them in on new, more efficient cars, helping the hard-pressed auto industry and the environment, too. Enticed by rebates of $3,500 to $4,500, owners are jumping at the offer.
"Consumers have spoken with their wallets," declared Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
House members approved the measure 316-109 within hours of learning from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood that the program was already running out of money. The Senate is expected to take up the measure next week, but the White House wouldn’t make any promises for deals beyond the weekend.
President Barack Obama praised the House’s quick work, saying the program had "succeeded well beyond our expectations and all expectations, and we’re already seeing a dramatic increase in showroom traffic at local car dealers."
Press secretary Robert Gibbs sought to assure consumers that the program would be alive at least a couple of days longer. "If you were planning on going to buy a car this weekend, using this program, this program continues to run," he said.
Senate approval for the extra $2 billion seemed less certain.
When the Senate approved $1 billion in funding for the plan in June, Democrats struggled to round up enough votes. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California pushed a separate plan requiring the new vehicles being bought to be vastly more fuel-efficient than the trade-ins, and she supported the measure that passed after receiving what she said was "absolute assurance" from Senate leaders that an extension would be modeled after her bill.
And Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said he was concerned with the way the House had paid for the extension, shifting $2 billion from a renewable energy loan program. He said that would "rob from the loan guarantees we provided through the recovery package that, in the long-term, will shift our country to homegrown, renewable energy while creating good green-collar jobs."
Drivers seemed more concerned about greenbacks.
Dennis and Marcia Strom hurried to Walser Toyota in Bloomington, Minn., on Friday when they heard the rebate might not last.
"I might have waited until the truck died," Dennis Strom said of his 14-year-old Dodge Dakota. "It’s a good vehicle that suits our needs. But it’s not worth $3,500."
John McEleney, chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Association, said many dealers have been confused about whether the program would be extended and for how long. Many had stopped offering the deals Thursday after word came out that the federal money had been exhausted.
With so much uncertainty, North Palm Beach, Fla., dealer Earl Stewart said he planned to continue to sell cars under the program but would delay delivering the new vehicles and scrapping the trade-ins.
"It’s been a total panic with my customers and my sales staff. We are running in one direction and then we are running in another direction," he said.
Called the Car Allowance Rebate System, or CARS, the program is designed to get old, polluting vehicles off the road and scrapped while helping car dealers pull out of the recession.
"I think we are seeing ourselves being placed on the road to economic recovery here, and this road has been paved by the ‘cash for clunkers’ program," said Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., who represents a district heavy with auto workers.
Not everyone in the House was cheering.
Some Republicans accused the Democrats of trying to jam the legislation through, and a number of lawmakers also complained that many dealers have been left to contend with a chaotic government-run program.
"The federal government can’t process a simple rebate. I’ve got dealers who have submitted the paperwork three times and have gotten three rejections," said Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich. "What is a dealer supposed to do?"
The program was funded to provide incentives for up to 250,000 new cars. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said about 40,000 vehicle sales had been completed through the program, and dealers estimated they were trying to complete transactions on an additional 200,000 vehicles, leaving the funding in doubt.
AP Business Writer Stephen Manning in Washington and Nomaan Merchant in Minneapolis contributed to this report.