The most comprehensive overhaul of motor vehicle safety laws in a decade, which once seemed certain in the wake of Toyota's sudden-acceleration problems, may never reach a vote in Congress.
"It is hanging on by a thread," said Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate who became deeply involved in pushing for the overhaul. "It is a once-in-20-year opportunity. A bill like this is not going to come by again."
The legislation, S.3302, has 23 major provisions that would create new safety standards, increase fines against automakers for violating federal rules and put an emphasis for the first time on safeguarding the electronic systems now ubiquitous in motor vehicles.
The legislation evolved out of three congressional investigations into reports of fatal accidents involving Toyota and Lexus vehicles that suddenly accelerated. The company was forced to temporarily stop sales, recall millions of vehicles and eventually pay a fine of $16.4 million for not promptly notifying the federal government about defects.
The main obstacle to passing the legislation, auto safety advocates say, is Sen. Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican who has carved out a niche as a fiscal hard-liner.
"We have a $14-trillion national debt because Congress funds thousands of well-intended programs every year that are not paid for," said Tom Hart, a spokesman for Coburn. "The offsets that have been proposed are budget gimmicks."
Coburn has indicated that he will put a hold on the Senate bill if Democrats attempt to bring it to a vote, Hart acknowledged. The threat has left the bill adrift.
Prospects are even dimmer for a tougher version of the legislation drafted by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. A spokeswoman for Waxman said he would support the Senate version if it was passed, but with the congressional session soon to end, time is running out.
The Obama administration has not staked a great deal on the bill, given all of the higher-priority fights that it has on its hands, but the Transportation Department is continuing to push for the legislation.
"Safety is our No. 1 priority, and that's why we are going to continue to work with Congress on this important matter," department spokeswoman Maureen Knightly said.
At least publicly, the auto industry has not vigorously fought the bill. Not long after its introduction, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers praised the legislation, though it said some of the original deadlines in the tougher House bill would be difficult to meet. The industry succeeded in softening those provisions before the bills were passed by committees.
And originally, the reform effort had some Republican support.
Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R- Maine) cosponsored the bill introduced by Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.). And privately, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was sending out signals that he also would support it, said Joan Claybrook, a former chief of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, who testified before Congress on the Toyota matter.
McCain was a key player in enacting the last major auto safety law a decade ago and Claybrook still hopes he will help negotiate a deal with Coburn. After a recent meeting with McCain staff members, Claybrook said they offered to be helpful.
But House Republicans are united against the bill, even though many of them seized publicity by attacking Toyota earlier this year. "Ugh, these politicians are so fickle," Claybrook said.
An amendment to the Senate bill has ironed out differences between the House and Senate versions, retaining the essential goals of the original legislation.
The bill would require vehicles to have a brake override that cuts engine power if a driver applies the brake and the gas pedal is stuck. It would increase civil penalties for violations of safety rules to a maximum of $300 million from about $15 million now. And it would for the first time establish standards for the electronic systems that now operate vehicles.
Nader is continuing to put pressure on Coburn. He enlisted Dr. Edward Shadid, an Oklahoma City spinal surgeon, to rally physicians in Coburn's home state to support the bill on the basis that it would save lives.
Shadid, also a Green Party candidate for state office in November, took out ads in Oklahoma newspapers and created a Facebook page. Shadid said he attempted to set up a conference call between Coburn and Oklahoma doctors.
"We were rebuffed or ignored," he said.