The Bush administration is expected to announce later today that it opposes a Democratic proposal to require dramatic improvements in fuel efficiency for cars and trucks sold in the United States, a move sharpening the partisan divide over energy policy, the Los Angeles Times said.

The LA Times said that, though the Democratic plan would make specific fuel economy increases compulsory over the next decade, The White House will urge that Congress instead authorise the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to set the standards later on.

The newspaper said that environmentalists and many Democrats fear such a process would provide too much leverage to the motor vehicle industry and undercut efforts to impose tougher standards.

But, the LA Times added, the idea could have considerable appeal to Democrats from vehicle-manufacturing states, who are facing intense resistance to the mandated increase from vehicle companies and the United Auto Workers. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit, has reportedly been crafting a similar provision, the newspaper added.

The LA Times said the Senate is expected to start debating within days the energy bill which would require cars and SUVs to reach an average performance of 35 miles per gallon by 2013.

Passenger cars currently must meet a “corporate average fuel economy,” or CAFE standard, of 27.5 mpg while light trucks, including SUVs, can meet an average of 20.7 mpg, the newspaper added.

“We may not like the number that (NHTSA officials) come out with, but at least they’re going to gather data to base a number on, as opposed to plucking a number out of the air,” Gloria Bergquist, spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, told the LA Times.