JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon is on assignment; I'm John Ydstie.

Congressional Democrats say they have a deal on an energy bill that would raise fuel efficiency standards for cars for the first time in more than 30 years. The proposal would force automakers to reach a 35-mile per gallon average fuel economy by 2020. Key leaders and staffers had been working during the Thanksgiving recess to come to terms on what is expected is to be the cornerstone of energy legislation that the House will take up when lawmakers return next week.

Joining us now is NPR's Debbie Elliott who has been monitoring the negotiations over the past few days. Hello, Debbie.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Good morning, John.

YDSTIE: Tell us about this compromise and how it was put together.

ELLIOTT: Well, in the wake of skyrocketing oil prices, Democrats had been eager to get an energy package to President Bush by the end of the year. This was considered a key part of the new Democratic majority's agenda. But the energy bill had appeared stalled after different versions had passed in the House and the Senate.

This new deal that was worked out late last night really came together when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi came to terms with the House's longest-serving member, Michigan Democrat John Dingell. He's the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He has been a strong advocate for the auto industry. They had been fighting the higher fuel standards. He had to get on board in order to avoid an ugly battle here. Last night, he said the deal was reached; he called the new efficiency goal both aggressive and attainable.

YDSTIE: And the vote is expected next week, Wednesday, in the full House?

ELLIOTT: Right. They expect a vote Wednesday at the earliest. And what this will mean - the new fuel efficiency standards - is that automakers will have to achieve an average of about 35 miles per gallon fuel efficiency over its fleet of cars and light trucks, including SUVs. The goal was to have this attained by 2020.

Now, this is a 40 percent increase over today's standard, which is twenty-seven and a half miles per gallon for cars and 22 for SUVs, vans and pickups. The auto industry had successfully fought off the higher fuel economy standards for decades, but I think the landscape changed with growing concerns about the nation's dependency on foreign oil.

YDSTIE: What else will this energy bill tackle?

ELLIOTT: Well, Congressman Dingell did negotiate some concessions for automakers here. They're going to be getting credit against the federal mileage targets for producing flexible fuel vehicles that can run on 85 percent ethanol. And House Speaker Pelosi has said this bill will ramp-up the nation's biofuel production and force electric utilities to use a higher percentage of renewable energy sources.

Now, it should be noted that the legislation is not set in stone yet; it's being negotiated, as we speak, this weekend. But basically, oil refineries would be required to use about seven times more than they do today of corn-based ethanol and other biofuels. And non-public utilities would have to produce 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources like wind or solar power.

YDSTIE: Is there enough support to get this bill passed and signed by the president?

ELLIOTT: Democratic leaders say they think so, and the question is what will happen in the Senate. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called the compromise good news; said once the House passes it, he'll get it to the Senate floor. And Michigan Democrat Carl Levin is now onboard, and that was very important to this.

YDSTIE: NPR's congressional correspondent Debbie Elliott.

Thank you, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome, John.

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