Enterprise, one of the largest privately held businesses in the nation, spent nearly $1 million on lobbying in 2011, almost four times the amount spent by its major competitors — Avis and Hertz — combined.
The company also spends much more trying to influence federal elections. So far this cycle, Enterprise's political action committee has raised $1.7 million and spent more than $134,000 on federal candidates, almost all of whom are Republicans. The company has consistently supported Republicans over Democrats in every election since 1996, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The Avis Budget Group PAC, by contrast, has spent none of the roughly $13,000 that it has raised so far this cycle. Hertz does not have a federal PAC.
Avis did not respond to Roll Call's request for comment but is expected to attend this week's meeting between CARS and the Enterprise and Hertz lobbyists, Gilbert said.
Advocates argue that Enterprise, which holds more than half the rental car market share, is not at risk of losing its dominance. The company is known for discount prices and maintains contracts with insurance companies and car dealerships to supply rental cars to customers whose cars are damaged. The advocates argue that the costs associated with federal regulation are miniscule compared to the $14 billion the company brought in in 2011.
The rental car industry, however, has a philosophical gripe: It feels it is being unfairly targeted because limousines and taxi services would not be subject to similar regulation.
Enterprise operates an executive committee to decide when a recalled car should be grounded and does not want the government to interfere, the spokeswoman said.
"All recalls aren't made the same," one industry lobbyist familiar with the issue told Roll Call last week.
But leaving that discretion up to the rental car companies makes consumers nervous. Even in Enterprise's backyard, 86 percent of Missouri residents said the companies should not be allowed to rent cars that have been recalled for a safety issue, according to a survey conducted by Public Policy Polling.
While Missouri Senators have not publicly supported the bill, Gilbert said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) has told her that she is open to compromise.
The recall amendment has the best chance of approval if it is included in the manager's package. Otherwise, Democratic and Republican leaders will have to agree to bring it up for floor debate and a vote. The trick will be convincing Members of both parties that the provision should be part of the bill.
Negotiations were in process on Friday and are expected to continue this week, ratcheting up the stakes of the meeting scheduled later this week between CARS and the rental car companies.
Consumer advocates said Enterprise's concession to meet was a huge victory, though they acknowledge nothing has been promised.
"I just think they are trying to spin their way out of this," CARS President Rosemary Shahan said. "It's easy for them to posture."
Houck remained tireless.
"They've already stolen the lives of my daughters, so what more can they take from me?" Houck said. "I'm not going to shut up."
Correction: Feb. 27, 2012
An earlier version of the article misstated the year that Change.org was founded.