Congress, White House seek auto bailout compromise

The Associated Press

Amid fresh assembly line layoffs, congressional Democrats and the White House groped for a compromise Friday on bailout billions for the beleaguered auto industry. President George W. Bush warned that at least one of the Big Three carmakers might not survive the current economic crisis.

Several officials said Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten spoke by phone. While no details of their conversation were available, it appeared the House’s top Democrat might be softening her opposition to Bush’s insistence that the aid come from a fund set aside for the development of environmentally friendlier cars.

The compromise efforts came as desperate auto executives pleaded for a second straight day with lawmakers for loans to help them survive, and the government reported the worst single month’s job loss in 34 years.

At the White House, Bush declared the economy was in a recession, and he urged a gridlocked Congress to act quickly on a multibillion-dollar industry bailout _ with taxpayer protections.

“We are going to have to have some give here,” replied Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, a senior House Democrat, expressing optimism that compromise might be possible. It wasn’t clear whether he was prodding Bush or Pelosi _ who have disagreed sharply on the terms of any bailout _ or both.

Republicans said there had been no lessening in Bush’s refusal to tap the $700 billion financial industry bailout fund to help the automakers.

Any legislation Congress might approve _ in an emergency session next week _ is likely to include appointment of a trustee or board to assure that General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co., and Chrysler LLC use the aid to return their firms to viability.

It was not clear how sizable a package of loans was under discussion, although it seemed unlikely it would be as large as the $34 billion that the Big Three have been seeking this week on Capitol Hill.

The Senate is scheduled to be in session next week to consider auto legislation, and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., issued a statement Friday that said the House was scheduled to meet on Tuesday. “However, whether the House will consider legislation affecting the U.S. automotive industry or any other economic recovery legislation has not yet been determined,” he said.

There were also fresh calls during the day for the Federal Reserve to come to the rescue of General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC., possibly in the form of low-cost loans. And Frank said he had talked with Tim Geithner, Treasury Secretary-designate for President-elect Barack Obama, a possible sign of involvement by the incoming administration.

“I am concerned about the viability of the automobile companies,” a somber Bush said as a fresh report showed that employers slashed 533,000 jobs in November.

The president added, “I’m concerned about those who work for the automobile companies and their families. And likewise, I am concerned about taxpayer money being provided to those companies that may not survive.” Bush did not elaborate, but executives at both GM and Chrysler have warned that their storied corporations could collapse by year’s end.

In addition to the November layoffs, GM announced it will cut shifts at factories in Lorain, Ohio, Orion Township, Mich. and Oshawa, Ontario in Canada in February as a result of slumping auto sales. About 2,000 jobs were involved, bringing the year’s total to 11,000.

The chief executives of GM, Ford and Chrysler, testified for a second consecutive day before Congress in support of their plea for a $34 billion bailout in the form of loans. “We believe this is the least costly alternative,” said Chrysler LLC chief executive Bob Nardelli said.

For the day, at least, their appeals were overtaken by the severity of the job loss figures, the worst in 34 years.

Frank said repeatedly that the unemployment statistics had quieted talk of allowing one or more of the automakers to go bankrupt.

“I think it’s fair to say that the jobs report today, this disastrous jobs report, has heightened the interest in doing something.” With trademark wit, he added, “If we are lucky we will come out with a bill here that nobody likes, because any bill that any individual liked couldn’t pass.”

Bush renewed his call for Congress to rewrite an existing $25 billion program intended to help the industry make more fuel-efficient vehicles. But the president did not explicitly foreclose other options, and Republican aides said the White House might be open to some sort of compromise.

Congressional budget analysts have said tapping the fuel-efficiency program for a broader auto bailout would net only $7.5 billion in short-term cash. Pelosi and environmentalists oppose making use of those funds. Instead, they want the administration to take money from a $700 billion financial industry bailout that cleared Congress last fall.

Absent a compromise, the Senate appears likely to convene next week for a series of votes on various alternatives, all of which would be doomed to failure. Any measure would require a 60-vote majority, an impossibility barring an agreement that involves both parties.

Pelosi has not yet said whether the House will convene next week to consider legislation.

Nardelli, GM chief executive Rick Wagoner and Ford CEO Alan Mulally all drove to Washington this week with detailed plans describing how their companies would use loans to make their industry more competitive in the long run, material that congressional leaders had demanded as a condition for considering a bailout bill.

The hearing was drained of some of the drama that filled the room at a similar Senate session on Thursday, although Frank told the three that some lawmakers would find it difficult to support aid unless the companies abandoned lawsuits filed against several states seeking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The House committee also heard from a variety of experts, one of whom joined lawmakers in prodded Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke to make low-interest rate loans available to the industry.

“I’d like Chairman Bernanke to step up and help this process more than has been the case so far, because they’re making loans that are a lot riskier than this one,” said Jeffrey D. Sachs, a professor.

Pelosi and Reid have also suggested the Federal Reserve use its authority to come to the aid of the Big 3.

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