Matthew L. Wald

WASHINGTON: House Republicans accused the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Wednesday of trying to keep secret a battery fire in a Chevy Volt out of fear of damaging the value of the government’s investment in the car’s manufacturer, General Motors, and jeopardizing President Barack Obama’s re-election prospects.


At a hearing of a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee, members released a staff report that argued that the administration’s bailout of GM created business and political reasons for the government to sacrifice public safety.


The chairman of the regulatory affairs subcommittee, Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, also criticized Ray LaHood, the Department of Transportation secretary, for saying in December that the car was safe.


“You wait six months before you start an investigation, and two weeks after you start an investigation the secretary says it’s fine, and you think that’s normal?” he asked David L. Strickland, the administrator of the safety agency.


The chairman and chief executive of GM, Daniel F. Akerson, said at the hearing that the Volt had not been designed “to be a political punching bag, and, sadly, that is what it has become.”


GM has begun a print and television campaign to stress the vehicle’s safety.


Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the full committee, has been among the most aggressive critics of Obama on questions of policy.


The questioning showed a marked split, by party, over the wisdom of electric vehicles and government help in promoting them. Dennis J. Kucinich, D-Lakewood, who is the ranking minority member of the subcommittee, accused Republicans of trying to sabotage the car.


A 16-page report by the Republican staff points out that the government has given Compact Power Inc., a manufacturer of lithium-ion batteries for the Volt, $151.4 million; and it has also given GM $105.9 million to build factories to make electric drive systems. The report also notes that Volt buyers can get up to $7,500 in tax credits for buying the car.


Akerson said many of the subsidies and tax credits were set up during the Bush administration. And the decision to manufacture the Volt was announced in 2006, when the price of gasoline hit $4 after Hurricane Katrina, and “was not based on any clairvoyant power to correctly predict the 2008 presidential election.”


The agency closed its investigation last week with an announcement that said the car was no more dangerous than an ordinary car filled with gasoline.