WASHINGTON – A federal "car czar" would oversee a government-run restructuring of U.S. auto companies in return for a $15 billion bailout of the beleaguered industry under an emerging deal between the White House and Congress.
Negotiators worked through the night Monday narrowing differences on a bill to rush short-term loans to the struggling carmakers through a plan that requires that the industry reinvent itself to survive — and pay back the government if it doesn't. The package could come to a vote as early as Wednesday.
The measure would put a government overseer named by President George W. Bush in charge of setting guidelines for an industrywide overhaul, with the power to revoke the loans if the automakers fail to do what's necessary to become viable. The White House was seeking tougher consequences, including allowing the overseer — being called a car czar — to force the companies into bankruptcy if they weren't doing enough to cut labor costs, restructure their debt and downsize to stay afloat.
Despite optimism on both sides that Congress and the White House could reach a swift agreement on the measure, it was still a tough sell on Capitol Hill. With lawmakers in both parties still bitter over the Bush administration's use of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout, many of them were preparing to hold their noses and vote for yet another federal rescue to avert deeper economic disaster.
"While we take no satisfaction in loaning taxpayer money to these companies, we know it must be done," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said. "This is no blank check or blind hope."
The developing plan would dole out auto industry loans right away, drawing the money from an existing program meant to help the carmakers retool their factories to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles. Then the czar would write guidelines, due on the first of the year, for restructuring the companies.
The proposal would attach an array of conditions to the auto bailout money, including some of the same restrictions imposed on banks as part of the Wall Street rescue. Among them are limits on executive compensation, a prohibition on paying dividends, and requirements that the government share in future profits and taxpayers be repaid before any other shareholders.
There also would be rigorous government oversight, with the special inspector general monitoring the Wall Street rescue also keeping tabs on the carmaker bailout. The Senate on Monday confirmed Neil M. Barofsky, a federal prosecutor in New York, to be the special inspector general.
The proposal gives the car czar say-so over any major business decisions by the automakers while they're taking advantage of federal aid. The companies would have to open their books to the government, including informing the overseer of any transaction of $25 million or more.
Also under discussion is a requirement that the carmakers taking federal aid get rid of their corporate jets — which became a potent symbol of the industry's ineptitude when the Big Three CEOs used them for their initial trips to Washington to plead before Congress for government assistance.
Still, the White House wanted clearer consequences for the automakers if a company was not meeting its own promises for long-term viability, according to officials who would comment on the continuing negotiations only on condition of anonymity.
Under Democrat's proposal, if the Big Three didn't come up with suitable restructuring plans by the end of March, the czar would have to submit his own blueprint to Congress for a government-mandated overhaul.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., a key ally of the auto industry, said getting the roughly 15 Republicans needed to support the plan was an uphill battle.
"This is a real hill to climb even if we can get agreement between the White House and congressional leaders," he said.
Even sympathetic Republicans weren't ready to sign on. Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, has "numerous concerns" about the bill, including the strength of the taxpayer protections and the role of the car czar, said spokesman Chris Paulitz.