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Lame-Duck Session May Live On

There is no deal to save the automakers — yet — while the lame-duck Congress may live to quack again in December.

Democratic leaders said that they did not have the votes in both chambers to pass a bipartisan bill announced Thursday by Senators from auto manufacturing states, but that they would give the auto industry another chance in December to convince lawmakers and the public that they have a plan for long-term viability if they get the money.

“Until we see the plan, we cannot show them the money,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said.

“We can only help if they are willing to help themselves,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said. Reid declined to bring up the bipartisan $25 billion bill, or any other proposal. “We want them to get their act together.”

Reid said Congress was “prepared” to return the week of Dec. 8 to consider any legislation aimed at helping the auto industry. The leaders said the Big Three automakers would be asked to submit plans for viability by Dec. 2, which would be examined in hearings that week.

Democratic leaders expressed their anger at the chief executive officers of the auto companies for flying to Washington, D.C., on corporate jets, but said they remain committed to trying to seek a deal to keep the millions of workers tied to the auto industry employed.

Auto state lawmakers said they were disappointed and surprised that Reid declined to push for a vote on their proposal Thursday or Friday, arguing that they had a reasonable shot at passing it. It would have spent $25 billion already appropriated for loans for building fuel-efficient vehicles — the only idea the Bush administration has been willing to support — but Pelosi rejected the plan.

The new bill aimed to appease concerns of the loss of the fuel-efficiency money by requiring any payments and interest under the loans be used to replenish the fuel-efficiency account. It also would include taxpayer protections limiting executive pay and require the Commerce Department to sign off on the automakers’ plans to use the money before it would be lent.

It also allowed auto suppliers to receive some of the loans.

Despite the disappointment on the lack of a deal, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), part of the bipartisan auto group, said the delay may ultimately be the best outcome. “It looked like it was dead” earlier in the week, he said. “This keeps the ball going down the field.”

“Now this is right smack in the Congress’ lap,” Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said. But Levin said leaders did not believe they had the votes to pass the bill this week. He also praised the Democratic leadership’s commitment to saving the industry from bankruptcy.

But Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) said he was concerned that if action is delayed, “We just might go over the cliff.”

And Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), another backer of the bailout, suggested that the automakers put selling their corporate jets into their plans. “Just a suggestion.”

Ford Motor Co. reacted positively to the developments.

“Ford welcomes the opportunity to provide our plan to Congress,” the company said in a statement. “We have a great plan that will continue Ford’s transformation into a lean, profitable company that delivers the safe, fuel-efficient, high-quality new products that our customers want and value.”

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