White House says auto deal is 'very likely'

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- The White House and a top Democratic lawmaker said they were likely to reach agreement Monday to help failing U.S. automakers, as congressional drafters put the finishing touches on a bill.

"It sounds like we have agreement on those basic principles that would be required for a bill that the president could sign," White House press secretary Dana Perino told reporters.

The developing measure would create a presidentially named overseer charged with running a broad auto industry restructuring, with the power to require immediate payback of the emergency loans early next year if the companies fail to take the steps necessary to overhaul themselves. It could also include a Cabinet-level oversight board, said congressional aides who outlined it on condition of anonymity because it is not yet completed.

Under the plan, the carmakers' could get emergency loans on Dec. 15. Then the presidentially tapped overseer - a kind of "car czar" - would write guidelines, due on the first of the year, for a Big Three restructuring. If the car companies hadn't taken enough steps to reinvent themselves by Feb. 15, 2009, the czar could recall the money. That would essentially mean that a person selected by President George W. Bush would set the terms for an auto industry restructuring, but someone picked by President-elect Barack Obama would have the power to decide whether they were being met.

Asked if a deal could be struck for a vote as early as Monday, Perino said, "I think it's very likely." She prodded senior Democratic lawmakers to send their proposal, particularly if they expected initial votes within 24 hours. "It seems pretty soon if we haven't seen the language yet," she said.

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., the Financial Services Committee chairman, said that he, too, expected a deal by the end of the day on a proposal that would draw emergency aid from an existing loan program meant to help the automakers build fuel-efficient vehicles. House and Senate Democratic aides were finalizing the package, which is expected to provide between $14 billion and $17 billion.

"There should be agreement by the end of today," Frank said on CNBC. He said he expected the bailout would clear Congress and be signed by Bush "before the week (is) out."

Some issues remain, however.

The White House, for instance, is pushing for a single adviser who would be empowered to revoke the loans and send the companies into bankruptcy if they don't make progress on fundamental shifts in their business. Perino didn't rule out that the White House could support a board instead of a single person.

The White House's main concern is that it wants to scrub the fine print of any legislative language to make sure the final deal does not weaken its main principle for a bailout: that the automakers show a detailed plan for how they will be viable in the long term. The administration says it won't support emergency help for car companies from taxpayers without such a plan.

"If they want to work with us, we'll meet them halfway," Perino said of lawmakers.

In return for the money, the carmakers would have to agree to terms similar to those placed on banks that receive funds under the $700 billion Wall Street bailout: to limit their top executives' pay packages, cease paying dividends, give the government a chunk of future gains and guarantee that taxpayers would be reimbursed before any other shareholders, the aides said.

The bill under discussion would place the special investigator overseeing the bank rescue in charge of keeping tabs on the auto bailout.

Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., chairman of the Banking Committee, said Sunday that General Motors Corp.'s chief executive, Rick Wagoner, "has to move on" as part of a government-run restructuring.

"I think you have got to consider new leadership," Dodd said on CBS' "Face the Nation."

GM spokesman Steve Harris said the company appreciates Dodd's support for the loans, but added, "GM employees, dealers, suppliers and the GM board of directors feel strongly that Rick is the right guy to lead GM through this incredibly difficult and challenging time."

Perino would not comment on the calls for specific leadership changes in the auto industry.

Criticized for staying on the sidelines until now, Obama voiced support Sunday for the bailout legislation being drafted in Congress. He accused car industry executives of a persistent "head-in-the sand approach" to long-festering problems.