In the end, it was much ado about nothing, as various lobbying factions supporting the U.S. auto industry once again put down a strong political alliance seeking a dramatic increase in Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards.

This year's CAFE battle was more heated than usual because of energy reliance concerns in the wake of last September's terrorist attacks, as well as increasing tension in the Middle East. Late in the game, vocal Massachusetts Democrat Sen. John Kerry and Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain had formed a bipartisan proposal to increase CAFE for the entire U.S. light vehicle fleet to 36 mpg (6.5L/100 km) by 2015. It appeared poised for adoption.

But Michigan Democrat Sen. Carl Levin spearheaded a last-minute “let's-use-common-sense” (opponents preferred the term “scare tactic”) campaign that painted a U.S. 36-mpg vehicle landscape where pickups were outlawed and soccer moms would suffer grisly deaths if forced into vehicles smaller than the Ford Excursion.

Levin and Christopher Bond (R-MO) authored an amendment calling for the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. to set fuel economy standards, and politically cowering senators voted 62-38 in favor of the new position.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which clicked its heels at the victory, will monitor the Energy Bill as it wends its way through the committee level, the House and back to the Senate. But spokesman Eron Shosteck says the mood is more optimistic.

“They may very well increase CAFE,” Shosteck says of the NHTSA. “But they're going to do it while looking at the safety implications and the economic implications and the consumer-choice implications.”

The move follows by one week a call by Ford Motor Co. Chairman and CEO Bill Ford Jr. to resolve CAFE outside of the political arena.

Following the Senate vote, DaimlerChrysler Corp. and the American International Automobile Dealers Assn. issue statements of support.

The Sierra Club, which had supported the Kerry-McCain initiative, showed expected bitterness. “The Senate is handing our nation's energy security over to the auto industry,” says Carl Pope, president of the group.