Sunday, November 16, 2008

Auto bailout backers offer to cut $25 billion size

WASHINGTON (AP) - Facing an uphill battle in Congress and stiff opposition from President George W. Bush, supporters of a government bailout for the sinking U.S. auto industry are offering to reduce its $25 billion size.

General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC, battered by an economic meltdown that has choked their sales and frozen credit, are lobbying lawmakers furiously for an emergency infusion of cash. GM has warned it might not survive through year's end without a government lifeline.

Other auto suppliers and dealers with showrooms empty of customers plan to join the effort Monday when Congress returns following the Nov. 4 elections. The key Senate vote on preventing opponents from blocking the package could occur as early as Wednesday.

"There's a need for immediate action,'' Alan Reuther, the United Auto Workers union's legislative director, said Friday. He said one option under consideration was a smaller, more targeted amount of funding "that would get the companies through to March.''

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, said negotiations were taking place among senators on what the amount should be. "This is about getting enough votes to be able to solve the problem,'' she said.

Democrats want to carve a portion of the $700 billion that the Bush administration is using to bail out banks, insurance companies and other financial institutions.

The White House on Friday came out firmly against the approach.

White House press secretary Dana Perino said the administration would rather Congress expedite the release of a separate $25 billion loan program for the development of fuel-efficient vehicles and have the loans used for more urgent purposes as the companies struggle to stay afloat.

"Democrats are choosing a path that would only lead to partisan gridlock,'' Perino said.

Environmentalists and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have vehemently opposed using that money for anything other than designing and building vehicles that get higher gas mileage and produce less pollution.

Democrats hold a 37-seat majority in the House and bailout supporters foresee little difficulty winning its passage there.

But the measure needs 60 votes to survive in the Senate, where Democrats will hold a razor-thin 50-49 majority when President-elect Barack Obama gives up his seat on Monday. A furious search was on for a dozen Republicans to break the anticipated delaying tactics from opponents.

Democrats are modeling their bill on the bailout terms that the Bush administration has used for doling out $290 billion to banks and insurance companies. The government would get an ownership stake in the auto companies in exchange for the loans to ensure that taxpayers would get their money back if they return to profitability.

Several Republican senators have already lined up against it. "Like most Americans who are concerned about the direction of our economy and more federal spending, I must also ask - when is enough, enough?'' said Republican Sen. John Cornyn.

Two Republican senators have said they will back the plan and several others have signaled they might accept a rescue if strict conditions are put on U.S. automakers, such as management and salary changes, union concessions and a commitment to making more fuel-efficient vehicles.

However, United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger said workers will not make any more concessions. He said it is unfair to call on workers to make more sacrifices, noting that previous cuts workers have agreed to have helped steady their employers.

Getting the automakers back on their feet means figuring out a way to turn around the slumping economy, the union leader said. "The focus has to be on the economy as a whole as opposed to a UAW contract,'' Gettelfinger told reporters on a conference call, noting the labor costs now make up 8 percent to 10 percent of the cost of a vehicle.

Gettelfinger blamed the problems the auto industry is suffering from on things beyond its control _ the housing slump, the credit crunch that has made financing a vehicle tough and the 1.2 million jobs that have been lost in the past year.

"We're here not because of what the auto industry has done,'' he said. "We're here because of what has happened to the economy.''-AP