WASHINGTON (AP) -- The House refused Wednesday to order a substantial increase in auto, truck and SUV fuel economy standards as it tackled a broad energy bill that would open an Arctic wildlife refuge to oil drilling.
The Bush administration said the legislation, which also would provide billions of dollars in tax breaks for energy industries, was a balance between energy development and conservation.
By a 269-160 vote, the House turned back a proposal that would have required sport utility vehicles to achieve a fleet average of 27.5 miles per gallon, the same as cars, by 2007.
Automobile fuel economy peaked at 26.5 miles per gallons in 1986, said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass. "We've been going backward every since. This is not rocket science. It's auto mechanics."
Both sides of the issue cited a National Academy of Sciences report this week that said the technology exists to substantially cut motor vehicle fuel use. The report also said that gap between automobile and SUV fuel economy should be narrowed, but that fuel use improvements should come over 10 years to 15 years.
Markey cited the academy's finding that the technology exists. Opponents argued that the report also said if automakers were pushed to act too quickly, they would build smaller vehicles, leading to more traffic deaths.
The Senate plans to consider energy legislation in September.
Democrats said the House bill was tilted too heavily toward energy companies, pointing to more than $33.5 billion in tax benefits over the next decade. They said $8 of every $10 would go to coal, oil, nuclear and other energy industries.
The White House urged lawmakers against raising the fuel economy standard, known as CAFE, beyond a modest proposal already in the legislation that requires SUVs to reduce gasoline use by 5 billion gallons over six years. That amounts to less than a 1 mpg increase for SUVs, the bill's critics maintained.
"Simply adopting arbitrary CAFE increases could cause additional traffic fatalities," the White House Office of Management and Budget said in a letter to the House.
A final vote on the energy bill was expected later Tuesday.
The revenue drain could force Congress to dip into Medicare or Social Security trust funds, Democrats charged. The bill's GOP supporters disagreed.
Debate on the 510-page bill, the first broad overhaul of federal energy policy in a decade, was expected to include a showdown over drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"This bill is a giant step forward in securing America's energy future,'' said Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La.
The House debate came days before Congress was to begin its summer recess. The action was the first legislative response to President Bush's energy blueprint released in May and to the growing concern in Congress about the nation's energy future.
The bill is "focused on increased conservation, promoting technology, expanding the use of renewables and increasing efficiency, increasing energy exploration and promoting a clean environment," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said.
Critics said the bill offered little immediate relief or significant energy savings.
"This moves America backward," insisted Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., and is "tilted to the energy lobby."
Among the bill's major provisions were:
-About $27 billion in tax breaks over 10 years for energy development including incentives for coal, gas and oil and nuclear energy development.
-Nearly $6 billion in conservation incentives including increasing federal research into clean coal technologies.
-An increase in federal spending to help low-income families pay heating and cooling bills, and make energy efficiency improvements.
Democrats contended that the tax incentives - substantially broader than what Bush had proposed in his energy plan -- would dig into the budget surplus and mean tapping the Medicare and Social Security trust funds.
The White House acknowledged that the tax incentives would reduce the budget surplus by at least $30 billion and cautioned lawmakers the administration would oppose anything that might jeopardize income tax relief.
The debate over the Arctic refuge unleashed intense lobbying.
An unusual alliance of House GOP leaders and several labor unions -- led by the Teamsters -- put pressure on wavering Republican moderates and on undecided Democrats to support drilling, which they claims would result in thousands of jobs.