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Washington — The prospects for a big increase in funding for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s defects team are uncertain, as the Senate’s top Republican on the Commerce Committee said he wasn’t ready to endorse it.

Democrats say even more may be needed. It is also unclear if Congress will approve sweeping auto safety legislation proposed last year by the Obama administration and Democrats.

President Barack Obama proposed tripling NHTSA’s budget for its Office of Defects Investigation to $31 million from $10.7 million.

“It’s no longer reasonable frankly to expect an office with eight screeners and 16 defects investigators to adequately analyze 75,000 complaints a year,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told reporters on a conference call this week. He said the agency couldn’t keep pace at current staffing levels.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who chairs the Commerce Committee, said NHTSA needs reforms — but isn’t sure that a budget increase is necessary. “We think there are ways too that you could reform and accomplish some things (without higher funding),” Thune said. “Clearly, we want to work with them, but it’s going to be tough in this budgetary environment with all the constraints that we’re dealing with to get significant increases in funding for any agency.”

Thune said NHTSA has a critical role. “We think the mission of the agency is an awfully important one — particularly given the fact that we’ve had record numbers of recalls last year,” he said. “They’ve got an important mission and we want to make sure that it’s accomplished.”

The budget proposal came after members of Congress criticized NHTSA in the wake of General Motors Co.’s delayed recall of 2.6 million cars with defective ignition switches that are linked to at least 51 deaths. Staffing on NHTSA’s defects team has remained flat for a decade. Under the proposal, that team would initially rise from 28 to 56.5 full-time equivalent positions.

The agency wants to add 57 people to a staff of more than 100, including a mathematician, two statisticians, 16 engineers and four investigators.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who chaired a series of hearings on auto safety last year, said the budget increase was a step in the right direction. “I applaud the step, but I am not sure it’s as far as we need to go,” McCaskill told The Detroit News.

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., another top ranking member of the Commerce Committee, called the NHTSA budget increase proposal “a step in the right direction.”

“NHTSA needs to do something and obviously they are getting a lot of complaints,” Heller said. “(NHTSA’s) ability to field all of the complaints has been difficult in the last couple of years — and people paid a price for that.”

Heller said there was little chance for a stand-alone auto safety bill, but said it could be attached to a highway reauthorization bill.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., backed a big increase for NHTSA, citing the recall of millions of vehicles with Takata air bags that are now linked to up to six deaths and 64 injuries from exploding air bags. “You can’t have a bunch of people riding around with a steering wheel with an exploding hand grenade in their face,” Nelson said. “We’ve got to protect the public.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said “Congress should be receptive” to the call for a bigger NHTSA defects staff and “very possibly more is needed. I think the most robust possible resources are necessary.”

Last year, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a series of hearings on auto safety problems featuring General Motors CEO Mary Barra, along with executives from Japanese air bag manufacturer Takata Corp.

The committee’s chairman, Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, said in July that he expected to propose legislation. His staff held meetings with automakers last year to consider whether to proceed. “We’ve got to figure out what happened. We’re going to come back, I think, with legislation later on maybe this year, maybe early next year — once we get enough,” Upton said in July.

But now it is not clear what will happen. Upton said in a statement released by his office he expected to take some action.

Upton said he is awaiting a report from the Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General on NHTSA’s conduct “which will provide important additional information and recommendations to help inform efforts later this year. While it’s not clear that a massive shake-up of our laws and regulators is necessary, the failures we exposed last year will be addressed, and we look forward to working with the new NHTSA head in that effort.”

Safety advocates have been pushing for significant auto safety reforms for more than four years in the wake of Toyota Motor Corp.’s recall of million vehicles for sudden unintended acceleration concerns.

Earlier this week, Foxx also said the Obama administration may unveil revised auto safety reforms when it releases a “new and improved” version of a long-term highway funding bill that will be sent to Congress in the “very near future.”

Foxx said the new legislation will have “many” of the auto safety reforms proposed last year by the administration. “There may also be some additional measures that help us grapple even better with challenges of auto safety,” Foxx said.

Those proposals include increasing the maximum fines to $300 million for automakers who fail to recall vehicles in a timely fashion, up from $35 million, and barring used car and rental car firms from selling or leasing unrepaired recalled vehicles. It would also have given NHTSA new power to quickly get vehicles off the roads it deemed to be an “imminent hazard.”

dshepardson@detroitnews.com

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