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Renegade
12-11-2008, 07:49 AM
* DECEMBER 11, 2008

By GREG HITT

WASHINGTON -- The House of Representatives approved a wide-ranging rescue Wednesday of the nation's auto makers, sending the plan to the Senate where Republican critics could endanger the initiative.

The White House and top Democrats on Capitol Hill hoped to hasten passage of the package this week and clear the way for release of billions in federal aid in an effort to avert a collapse of one or more of the troubled Big Three.

But the compromise bill, forged over five days of negotiations among top presidential aides and the Democratic congressional leadership, is proving a difficult sell among Republicans, despite high-level arm twisting. Their backing wasn't so important in the House, where the package passed on a 237 to 170 vote, with Democrats providing most of the support. But Republican backing will be crucial in the narrowly divided Senate to give the measure the 60 votes needed to ensure passage.

"Not so fast," said Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas) after a closed-door meeting with Vice President Richard Cheney and Josh Bolten, the president's chief of staff, who were dispatched to Capitol Hill to rally support among Senate Republicans.

Mr. Cornyn voted for the $700 billion rescue of financial-industry companies, but he suggested he and other Republicans have concerns about whether the proposed "car czar," an official who would oversee the industry rescue, would have the power to force concessions needed to return the industry to sound financial footing.

Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) said the White House may have hurt its cause Wednesday. "They probably left with less support than they came in with," he said. Sen. Corker suggested that the more rank-and-file Republicans learn about the White House-backed compromise, the less they like it.

Amid the uncertainty, House Democratic leaders were determined to press forward. "If we do nothing we face the risk that sometime soon there will be no American auto industry," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D., Md.).

Aides to President-elect Barack Obama are working with the White House and congressional leaders to win passage of the package but say they aren't taking the lead and want the White House to win the necessary Republican votes.

Pulled down by a steep drop in sales, General Motors Corp., Chrysler LLC and Ford Motor Co. are seeking $34 billion in loans or lines of credit to weather the recession. Ford says it needs taxpayer-backed financing only for the long-term. GM and Chrysler say they need the cash before the end of the year to avoid collapse.

The legislation would authorize immediate release of $14 billion in emergency loans for the companies and open the door for approval of long-term financing if the companies can agree on plans to restructure.

Democratic leaders dropped a provision that would bar the auto makers from using federal dollars to participate in lawsuits challenging state limits on greenhouse-gas emissions. The provision was opposed by Republicans and the White House. But the bill moving through the House does include language that would force the auto makers to comply with state greenhouse-gas limits, which left Republicans steaming. The Senate bill requires auto makers to comply with federal limits, language more palatable to Republicans.

The issue was the sole difference between the House and Senate versions of the bill, congressional aides said, and reflected a determination by House Democrats to preserve a small victory for environmentalists. The Senate package could yet be changed ahead of floor action.

A fundamental concern among Republican critics is whether the legislation would force concessions not just from industry executives, suppliers and dealers, but from unions.

In forcing the vote, the House, which was expected to leave town after Wednesday's action, was playing a game of brinksmanship with the Senate. At the very least, the move has delayed any final conclusion to days of wrangling.

Allies of the industry will likely have to marshal 60 senators, likely on Friday, to win a pivotal vote on whether to overcome Republican procedural objections to the rescue effort. Vote predictions aren't precise in the Senate, but auto allies suggest they may need 12 to 15 Republicans to reach that threshold. Democrats, who control the chamber on a narrow 50-49 majority, are working from a disadvantage. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D., Mass.) isn't in town. Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.) flew Thursday to Poland for a conference on climate change, though he is ready to come back, an aide said. Other Democrats are opposed.

Most problematic is the deep frustration many lawmakers feel with Detroit, which critics complain has been slow to modernize in the face of foreign competition. There is also broader dissatisfaction among lawmakers with the government-led efforts to prop up the economy, especially the $700 billion financial-industry rescue.

Underscoring the dissatisfaction, the House, voting 403-0, added an amendment to the auto bill requiring banks that receive future assistance from the $700 billion rescue to provide an accounting of their private-sector lending.

Some Republicans, such as Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, are adamantly against any bill. "I'm going to oppose the package because I think this is just the down payment on billions and billions to come," he said. "These are failed or failing companies."

Other Republicans suggest they might be willing to back a rescue, especially if the car czar is given stronger authority to dictate terms of a restructuring. "Nobody wants to let the auto companies go down," said Sen. Robert Bennett (R., Utah).
—Jonathan Weisman and Martin Vaughan contributed to this article.
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122892559722094925.html?mod=special_page_campaig n2008_mostpop