Aid Prospects are Darkening for U.S. Automakers

By: AP
By: AP

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Prospects dimmed on Monday for the $25 billion bailout that U.S. automakers say they desperately need to get through a bleak and dangerous December.

Though all sides agree that Detroit's Big Three carmakers are in peril, battered by the economic meltdown that has choked their sales and frozen loans, the White House and congressional Democrats are headed for stalemate over how much government money should go toward helping them.

Behind the logjam is a troubling reality for the car companies: Bailout fatigue has set in at the White House and on Capitol Hill, where many in both parties have spent the past few weeks being berated by constituents for agreeing to the $700 billion Wall Street rescue.

The new debate comes as the financial situation for General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC grows more precarious. GM has said it could run out of cash by year's end without government aid.

A Senate auto bailout bill unveiled Monday noted that 355,000 U.S. workers are directly employed by the auto industry, and an additional 4.5 million work in related industries. That doesn't count the one million retirees, spouses and dependents who rely on the companies for retirement and health care benefits.

Not only has President George W. Bush made it clear he doesn't want to dole out any new aid for the automakers, congressional officials say his administration has privately informed top Democrats it won't even use at least half of that huge rescue fund approved last month to aid the financial industry.

The Senate Democrats' measure would carve out a portion of the Wall Street bailout money to pay for loans to U.S. automakers and their domestic suppliers, but aides in both parties and lobbyists tracking the plan privately acknowledge they are far short of the votes to pass it.

The White House and congressional Republicans insist that any automaker bailout money instead come from redirecting a $25 billion loan program approved by Congress in September to help the industry develop more fuel-efficient vehicles. The GOP would lift restrictions on that money to speed it to the carmakers.

Democrats want to leave that money alone and give the industry an additional $25 billion from the financial bailout funds -- for a total of $50 billion.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he would hold a vote this week on a bill that pairs the auto industry bailout with an extension of jobless aid. But in an acknowledgment of the long odds facing such a plan, Reid also laid the groundwork for a straight up-or-down vote on the more widely supported unemployment measure, which is probably all that can pass this week.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has held off scheduling a vote on an auto bailout bill until it becomes clear whether such a measure can pass the Senate, where it would need a 60-vote supermajority to advance.

The Senate's proposed auto aid bill would provide loans with initial interest rates of 5 percent in exchange for a stake in the companies or warrants that would let the government profit from future gains. Loan applicants would have to give the government a plan for ''long-term financial viability.''

But the measure stops short of giving the government a say over the companies' operations through an oversight board or hard limits on executive compensation. While taking advantage of the program, the companies could not pay dividends or award bonuses to executives making more than $250,000 a year or give large ''golden parachute'' payments to top people.

A vote on the measure could come as early as Thursday.


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