WASHINGTON – Conservative Republicans admonished the White House Tuesday not to use bank-bailout billions to rescue distressed U.S. automakers, and a key Democrat demanded the government get veto power over the companies' business decisions as a condition of any aid.
The Bush administration said it was still evaluating options and suggested any deal would require major concessions by all sides. Complicating its task, lawmakers in both parties — having failed in their efforts to push a $14 billion auto rescue through a bailout-weary Congress — were pressing for an array of terms and conditions they said should be part of any Plan B.
"We are not going to be rushed into it," presidential press secretary Dana Perino declared.
Only a day earlier, President George W. Bush suggested that a rescue package would come sooner rather than later. "An abrupt bankruptcy for autos could be devastating for the economy," Bush said on Monday. "This will not be a long process because of the economic fragility of the autos."
Still, conservative Republican lawmakers, many from Southern states that are home to Japanese auto plants, wrote to Bush asking him not to use one of the most readily available pots of money — the $700 billion Wall Street rescue fund — to help the U.S. carmakers.
And the White House and Treasury Department were in talks with Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who has been pressing for big union concessions in exchange for rescue money, on the terms and structure of a possible bailout, said a senior GOP congressional aide.
Corker came close last week to striking a deal with the United Auto Workers union for a $14 billion bill that would have forced the carmakers to bring their wages and benefits in line with those of Japanese auto companies in the U.S. by a specific date in 2009. The measure collapsed after the UAW refused to agree to wage cuts that quickly. The new contacts with the administration were disclosed on condition of anonymity because the aide was not authorized to divulge them.
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass. weighed in as well, urging Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to adopt the accountability provisions included in a House-passed auto bailout bill — the product of a deal with the White House — as a condition of any bridge loans to U.S. automakers. That measure would have given a Bush-appointed overseer say-so over any major business decisions by the automakers while they were taking advantage of federal aid, including the power to nix any transaction of $100 million or more.
"Given the serious mistakes that senior auto industry executives acknowledge they have made in the past, such safeguards are absolutely necessary to ensure that taxpayers are protected and that the retooling of this critical industry proceeds as quickly as possible," Frank wrote to Paulson on Tuesday.
GM and Chrysler have said they will run out of cash within weeks if they don't get help. Ford Motor Co. has said it has enough cash to survive 2009.
She said concessions had to be made in exchange for the money.
"I don't think that there's any possible way that this president would agree to allow taxpayer financing to go toward firms that are not willing to make tough decisions to become viable and competitive in the future," she said.
Bush said Tuesday that his administration was "considering all options" for helping the automakers, arguing that the already distressed economy could slide further into recession without prompt action.
"What you don't want to do is spend a lot of taxpayers' money and then have the same old stuff happen again and again and again," Bush told CNN in an interview. At the same time, he said, "we're trying to get this done in an expeditious way."
The administration indicated it would extend a helping hand to the domestic automakers after an aid effort died in Congress late last week. The White House had wanted Congress to act.
The timing and details of Plan B — the Bush administration stepping in to help the automakers directly — remain in flux. In the absence of action, lawmakers were eagerly offering up their counsel, particularly on the idea of using the $700 billion financial industry rescue fund, known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program, to help U.S. automakers.
"Congress never voted for a federal bailout of the automobile industry, and the only way for TARP funds to be diverted to domestic automakers is with explicit congressional approval," wrote 26 GOP lawmakers, led by Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas.
Seven Senate Republicans led by Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina fired off a similar missive saying that without restructuring, "we do not believe any amount of money will succeed in saving these companies."
The administration is weighing several options. They include using part of the $700 billion fund to provide loans to the carmakers, or using money from the fund as collateral for emergency loans the automakers could get from the Federal Reserve.
The White House has repeatedly said it wants to avoid a "disorderly bankruptcy" of any major automaker — presumably a Chapter 7 filing that would effectively shut down the company and require a destructive liquidation of its assets.
But the administration has not taken off the table an aid package that could still force one or more companies to enter into a Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which would allow a carmaker to keep operating but put it under the purview of a court.
Among the White House's chief concerns is that any aid package it authorizes would not have the same force of law that a plan approved by Congress would have. The White House is researching ways to provide leverage to hold carmakers accountable for the money they get.
Associated Press Writer Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed to this report.