WASHINGTON - Amid partisan sparring, a House panel advanced a sweeping auto-safety bill Wednesday that critics contend is too tough on the industry.
The legislation, approved 31-21 by the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the shadow of the large Toyota Motor Corp. recalls, now goes to the full House, where lawmakers hope to pass it later this year.
Toyota has recalled more than 8.5 million vehicles around the globe, leading to the first major review of auto-safety laws in Congress in a decade.
Under the bill, automakers would be required to meet new safety standards to prevent unintended acceleration in vehicles - a key issue in the Toyota recalls. They also would face new rules for brake-override systems and vehicle black boxes and tougher penalties for slowing down a recall.
In addition, the bill empowers the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to order a recall if it finds "substantial likelihood of death or serious injury to the public" from an auto defect. Automakers would be able to present information before the department issued a final order.
Automakers typically conduct voluntary safety recalls, but if they disagree with the government on the need for one, NHTSA must develop a case for a recall and then hold a public hearing. The process can take months.
Car companies that fail to promptly report safety defects to the government would face tougher penalties of up to $200 million.
Toyota paid the maximum penalty of $16.4 million for a slow response to one of its recalls.
Auto executives who knowingly provide false information to the government could face penalties of up to $5 million under the proposal.
Rep. Henry Waxman (D., Calif.), the committee's chairman, called it a "balanced bill."
But Republicans said the bill, including tougher fines, was overly harsh toward the auto industry. They questioned the bill's provisions that would boost federal funding for the highway agency and add user fees of $3 to $9 per vehicle to fund NHTSA's safety program.