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As Congress developed sweeping changes to police financial markets, U.S. automobile dealers responded with a strong lobby push to protect their industry from further regulation. So far, their efforts have paid off.

During 2009 and the first quarter of 2010, the National Automobile Dealers Association spent just under $3 million to lobby on financial reform and other issues, according to disclosure documents filed with the Senate Office of Public Records and examined by the Center for Public Integrity. The American International Automobile Dealers Association spent $450,000.

On Monday, dealers won a victory when the Senate passed a nonbinding motion urging bill negotiators to exempt auto dealers from the proposed consumer financial protection agency. The House financial reform bill carves out automobile dealers from jurisdiction of the new pro-consumer agency, but the Senate bill does not. Negotiators from the House and Senate will meet in June to work out differences between their versions of the legislation and to finalize bill language.

The victory angered consumer advocates who oppose an exemption for auto lenders, an industry which has been criticized by the White House and the Treasury Department for pushing shady loans on members of the military. U.S. auto dealers are now regulated by the Federal Trade Commission and by local and state agencies.

“Auto lenders and dealers have some of the most predatory lending practices out there,” said Kathleen Day, a spokeswoman for Center for Responsible Lending. “If the whole point of this bill is to put everyone under some common sense rules, why should they be given a special exemption?”

Both associations declined to comment on their lobby spending. But like other industries that have tried to dodge further regulation, auto dealers contend they were not responsible for the financial meltdown and should not face the same consequences as mortgage lenders. “By imposing the same regulations on dealers as those on Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo, this legislation would essentially affect our ability to provide viable financing options for our customers,” said Rick DeSilva, chairman of American International Automobile Dealers at a news conference last week as the Senate considered financial reform.

The National Automobile Dealers Association, meanwhile, has urged its nearly 17,000 member dealers to call their Senate lawmakers and provided talking points to use in arguing for an industry exemption from the new consumer protection agency. The exemption would help “keep car loans affordable for consumers,” according to one of the talking points posted on the group’s website.

The auto dealers’ message is being echoed in Congress, particularly by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who sponsored Monday’s nonbinding motion in the Senate after failing to insert the exemption language into the financial regulatory reform bill. “Auto dealers are a part of Main Street, not Wall Street, and they are not responsible for the financial meltdown,” Brownback said in a statement.

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