The Bush administration got the go-ahead Wednesday from a House committee to set per-gallon mileage targets for passenger cars. Republicans beat back Democrats' attempt to require higher standards by 2015.

The White House said it needs congressional permission to put in place a new system that takes into account vehicles' size and weight. The GOP-controlled House Energy and Commerce Committee approved the idea by a party-line 28-26 vote.

"The passenger car system has remained untouched for too long," said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, the committee chairman. "It's time that we require a fresh look at an old system."

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., tried to require a fleetwide average of 33 miles per gallon for light trucks and passenger cars by 2015. The committee rejected the proposal by a 36-17 vote.

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Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta has opposed simply imposing tougher mileage requirements on cars until the rule changes. He has cited safety concerns — more smaller, fuel-efficient cars on the road might put more people at risk in accidents — and a need to give the industry some flexibility.

The legislation approved by the committee "can improve fuel efficiency by requiring manufacturers to apply fuel-saving technologies rather than giving them an incentive to build smaller cars," Mineta wrote House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.

Automakers currently must meet a fleetwide average for passenger cars of 27.5 miles per gallon, a figure largely unchanged for two decades. The industry averages 29 mpg for new passenger cars.

Critics have urged Mineta to aggressively raise the rates. They question the wisdom of new rules for sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks that would increase the mileage for those vehicles by 1.8 mpg to 24 mpg by the 2011 model year.

Some Democrats branded the bill as election-year politicking, saying it would not affect pump prices.

Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., said the bill was developed to "provide political cover rather than craft solid public policy."

Lawmakers representing auto workers expressed concern that the measure was rushed without enough consideration of the economic consequences. The changes could come as General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. move to close plants and shed jobs because of increased competition and higher costs.

"These are perilous times for the American automobile industry," said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich.

The rules would be written no later than Dec. 30, 2008, and would give automakers enough time to develop their models based on the requirements.

The measure now goes to the full House. Senate has yet to consider the legislation.