WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is refusing to quickly release government records on its "cash-for-clunkers" rebate program that would substantiate — or undercut — White House claims of the program's success, even as the president presses the Senate for a quick vote for $2 billion to boost car sales.
The Transportation Department said it will provide the data as soon as possible but did not specify a time frame or promise release of the data before the Senate votes whether to spend $2 billion more on the program.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Sunday the government would release electronic records about the program, and President Barack Obama has pledged greater transparency for his administration. But the Transportation Department, which has collected details on about 157,000 rebate requests, won't release sales data that dealers provided showing how much U.S. car manufacturers are benefiting from the $1 billion initially pumped into the program.
The Associated Press has sought release of the data since last week. Rae Tyson, spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said the agency will provide the data requested as soon as possible.
DOT officials already have received electronic details from car dealers of each trade-in transaction. The agency receives regular analyses of the sales data, producing helpful talking points for LaHood, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs and other officials to use when urging more funding.
LaHood said in an interview Sunday he would make the electronic records available. "I can't think of any reason why we wouldn't do it," he said.
LaHood, the program's chief salesman, has pitched the rebates as good for America, good for car buyers, good for the environment, good for the economy. But it's difficult to determine whether the administration is overselling the claim without seeing what's being sold, what's being traded in and where the cars are being sold.
LaHood, for example, promotes the fact that the Ford Focus so far is at the top of the list of new cars purchased under the program. But the limited information released so far shows most buyers are not picking Ford, Chrysler or General Motors vehicles, and six of the top 10 vehicles purchased are Honda, Toyota and Hyundai.
LaHood has called the popular rebates to car buyers "the lifeline that will bring back the automobile industry in America." He and other advocates are citing program data to promote passage of another $2 billion for the incentives -- claiming dealers sold cars that are 61 percent more fuel efficient than trade-ins.
LaHood also said this week that even if buyers aren't choosing cars made by U.S. automobile manufacturers, many of the Honda, Toyota and Hyundai cars sold were made in those companies' American plants.
But there's no way to verify his claims without access to DOT's data.
Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has argued against quick approval of $2 billion for the program because little is known about the first round of $3,500 and $4,500 rebates.
"We don't have the results of the first $1 billion," McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said. "You don't have them. We don't have them. DOT doesn't have all of it. We'd hate to make a mistake on something like that."