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Nissan Views Spark Intra-Industry Feud

Nissan and its team of lobbyists from Hogan & Hartson have raised the ire of nearly every other auto company advocate because of Nissan’s apparent split with its corporate kin over an amendment on fuel economy standards.

And the intra-industry debate — centered on an energy bill amendment sponsored by Sens. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Kit Bond (R-Mo.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) — has gotten personal, with the majority of auto lobbyists privately blasting Nissan’s position on Capitol Hill, according to industry and Congressional sources.

Lobbyists for other automakers say Nissan could be sending an already-jittery industry down an economically dangerous road by not supporting the Pryor-Bond-Levin amendment, which would alter the current energy bill’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards to what the majority of the auto industry says is a more realistic goal. Not only do the major U.S. automakers support the amendment, which would allow separate fuel economy standards for cars and trucks, but so do Toyota and the Auto Alliance trade group. Senior auto company executives are in town this week to lobby for the amendment.

Greg Martin, a spokesman for General Motors, said GM supports the amendment because the company views it as a reasonable alternative to the current bill, which requires a 35-miles-per-gallon fleet average by 2020.

“We want to make sure Congress understands we’re willing to roll up our sleeves and work to get higher fuel economy standards,” he said. The amendment, “while aggressive,” is a more reasonable approach than the bill that passed the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

Nissan, its competitors say, prefers the Senate Commerce version and wants both cars and trucks to be considered together as part of the same overall fuel efficiency numbers, instead of being considered separately.

Jeannine Ginivan, manager of corporate communications for Nissan’s Washington, D.C., area, declined to discuss Nissan’s position on the legislation. “These fuel economy regulations are really complex issues,” she said. “We’re not going to comment on specifics.”

Some rival auto industry lobbyists said they speculated that perhaps Nissan sees a marketplace advantage, but others said Nissan and its lobbyists simply have read the same bill as the rest of the industry and failed to realize how much of an impact it would have.

“I think they are seeing an outcome differently than we’re seeing the outcome, so only one of us is going to turn out to be right,” said a well-placed auto industry lobbyist, who requested anonymity.

Some auto lobbyists said they are are baffled, but not surprised, by Nissan’s position. The company already cuts an unusual profile in D.C.; it’s lobby outpost is in Herndon, Va., near Dulles Airport. Hogan & Hartson is the company’s primary firm.

Last year, Hogan & Hartson reported earning $2.3 million in federal lobbying fees from Nissan, with a team that included lobbyists Jeffrey Munk, Lance Bultena and W. Michael House to assist Nissan’s in-house director of government affairs, Tracy Woodard, who splits time between the Herndon office and an office in Nashville, Tenn. Nissan’s lobbyists either did not return calls seeking comment or declined to comment.

A second auto lobbyist said the fuel- economy benchmarks set out in the bill that passed the Senate Commerce Committee would not be reachable for any automaker, including Nissan, and could particularly hamper those firms trying to get their financial footing.

“What’s at stake is the whole bill here,” said this lobbyist. Nissan “may bring the rest of the industry down with them.”

Wade Newton, communications director for the Auto Alliance, said the alliance supports separate CAFE standards for cars and light trucks. Nissan dropped out of the Alliance earlier this decade.

“Combining the two would mean that cars would have to get 52 miles per gallon by 2030 to balance out the trucks,” he said. “For the foreseeable future, we just can’t achieve that.”

But the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers is sitting out this legislative fight because its members, which include Nissan, are divided, said the group’s head, Mike Stanton. “There’s always strength in unity, and the fact that there’s not a unified total industry position, it hurts the lobbying effort,” Stanton said.

Alan Reuther, a lobbyist for the United Automobile Workers union, said Nissan wants to get rid of the distinction between domestic-made passenger cars and foreign-made passenger cars. The UAW supports the distinction because, Reuther said, it will help keep manufacturing jobs in the United States.

“I think it’s unfortunate that [Nissan has] taken these positions,” he said, adding that more than 17,000 auto manufacturing jobs are at stake in his view. “Nissan wants to be able to move production oversees.”

But sources familiar with Nissan’s position said the reverse is true: if the amendment becomes the law, then Nissan would have to move its production of U.S.-made passenger cars oversees in order to comply.

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