WASHINGTON - The Bush administration is looking at "orderly" bankruptcy as a possible way to deal with the desperately ailing U.S. auto industry, the White House said Thursday as carmakers readied more plant closings and a half million Americans filed new jobless claims.
With General Motors, Chrysler and the rest of Detroit anxiously holding its breath and waiting for a federal rescue, White House press secretary Dana Perino said, "There's an orderly way to do bankruptcies that provides for more of a soft landing. I think that's what we would be talking about."
Bush, like Perino, spoke of the idea of bankruptcies orchestrated by the federal government as a possible way to go — without committing to it.
"Under normal circumstances, no question bankruptcy court is the best way to work through credit and debt and restructuring," he said during a speech and question-and-answer session at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. "These aren't normal circumstances. That's the problem."
Perino said the White House was "very close" to a decision — though she wouldn't give a timetable. She emphasized there were still several possible approaches to assisting the automakers, including short-term loans from the Treasury Department's $700 billion Wall Street bailout program.
The Big Three automakers said anew that bankruptcy wasn't the answer, as did an official of the United Auto Workers who called the idea unworkable and even dangerous. General Motors shot down reports of a possible merger with Chrysler as they insist their focus is on their own turnaround plan, reports CBS News correspondent Jeff Gilbert
"Adding Chrysler's problems to General Motor's own problems adds a level of complexity that would make things a bit riskier for GM and I think they understand that," IHS Global Insight analyst Aaron Bragman told CBS News.
The California Democrat said Bush has the legal authority to act now, and should attach the accountability standards that were included in a $14 billion House-passed and Bush-supported carmaker bailout that died in the Senate last week. That plan would have given the government, through a Bush-appointed "car czar," veto power over major business decisions at any auto company that received federal loans.
Adding Chrysler's problems to General Motor's own problems adds a level of complexity that would make things a bit riskier for GM and I think they understand that.
IHS Global Insighth analystPelosi spoke after the government announced that initial claims for unemployment benefits totaled a seasonally adjusted 554,000 last week.
The comments in Washington came a day after Chrysler LLC announced it was closing all its North American manufacturing plants for at least a month as it, GM and Ford Motor Co. await word on government action. General Motors also has been closing plants, and it and Chrysler have said they might not have enough money to pay their bills in a matter of weeks.
Prices of GM and Ford stocks were down sharply Thursday after the remarks out of the White House. Ford, unlike General Motors and Chrysler, is not seeking billions in federal bailout loans, but a collapse of the other two could hurt Ford as well.
Alan Reuther, the United Auto Workers' legislative director, said the union urged the administration during a meeting this week to follow the provisions included in the House-passed auto aid bill.
Congressional aides in both parties who have been closely following the discussions suggested the talk of bankruptcy could be a tactic to extract more hefty concessions from the companies and union in exchange for granting short-term loans from Treasury's financial industry rescue fund.
Perino said one factor preventing an announcement of action by the administration is that discussions continue with the various sides that would have to sign on to a managed bankruptcy — entities such as labor and equity holders in addition to the companies themselves.
A senior administration official said the talks between Bush officials and the Big Three and their stakeholders amount to information-gathering, not negotiating.
The White House has repeatedly emphasized its opposition to "disorderly bankruptcy" — presumably a Chapter 7 filing that would effectively shut down a company and require liquidation of assets. That has left on the table the possibility of forcing one or more automakers into a Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which allows a firm to keep operating while under a court's purview.
Harlan Platt, who teaches corporate turnarounds at Northeastern University in Boston, said the government may be waiting for an offer of an ownership stake in the companies, much as it received in return for capital plowed into banks. "You really have to ask the question: If this is good enough for Wall Street, why isn't it good enough for Detroit?" he said.
On Thursday, spokesmen for Chrysler, GM and Ford generally referred to their previous comments that bankruptcy was not a workable solution. The car companies argue that no one would buy a vehicle from a bankrupt company for fear that the company might not be around to honor warranties.
"We continue to work with the administration to find a solution to this liquidity crisis," said GM spokesman Tony Cervone.