Congress Gives Auto Plan Mixed Reviews

Posted December 19, 2008 at 2:39pm

President Bush’s $13.4 billion plan to help bail out the U.S. auto industry is receiving mixed reviews on Capitol Hill, where a similar plan pushed by Democrats and the White House failed last month.

Bush on Friday announced a $13.4 billion bridge loan for automakers, saying the action was necessary to prevent a “disorderly bankruptcy” that could be too much for the tottering economy to bear.

Bush, who spoke at the White House, said the struggling automakers would have to repay the money if they could not provide major restructuring plans by March 31.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Cal.) praised the plan, which appears to draw heavily on the deal Bush and Democrats cut last month. Republicans had balked at a lack of wage reforms for the United Auto Workers.

“The President’s announcement this morning provides an opportunity for the American automakers to become viable and competitive while securing millions of jobs. The auto companies and all other parties now must engage in comprehensive negotiations that will require all parties to make concessions,” Pelosi said in a statement.

Likewise, Reid hailed the plan as an important step toward righting the flailing industry. “I am pleased that the administration’s latest offer incorporates most of the terms of the agreement struck with Congress last week — providing emergency funds to prevent our auto industry from going bankrupt while requiring necessary concessions to make the companies viable for the long term. And we are sending the auto executives who brought us to this point the clear message that if they do not soon find a way to become viable, they will lose government support,” Reid said.

Congressional Republicans, however, were deeply divided, with leadership and the wing’s conservatives blasting the plan while Republicans from states with ties to the auto industry — most notably Sens. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) and Kit Bond (R-Mo.) — praising the plan.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a statement, “I have strong objections to the use of Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) funds for industry specific bailouts. And I do not support this action.”

Voinovich, in contrast, thanked Bush for pursuing the bailout. “On behalf of all Ohioans, I am grateful the president stepped in to help thwart a disaster that would have sent our state over the cliff. I spoke again yesterday with White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten urging them to act by today because the dominoes are falling. The president has supplied oxygen to a patient fighting to get healthy through restructuring and becoming more competitive,” Voinovich said.

The deal will require the car companies to show that they can “achieve profitability and a positive net worth,” put their retirement plans on a sound footing and reduce workers’ compensation to a level “competitive with foreign automakers,” Bush said. At the very least, the funds will give the companies time to organize an “orderly” bankruptcy that would maintain consumer confidence, according to Bush.

The president appeared frustrated that Congress had failed earlier this month to approve legislation to aid the carmakers, saying inaction on Capitol Hill had forced the executive branch to intervene. He said he was taking the action in part so that President-elect Barack Obama does not have to face the demise of the U.S. auto industry immediately upon taking office next month.

The funding will be taken from the $700 billion package Congress approved earlier this year to bail out the U.S. financial sector.

An additional $4 billion will become available to automakers after January if Congress approves the second portion of the $700 billion bailout fund for use by the president, according to administration officials.

The administration’s move puts it at odds again with House Republicans, who rallied against the use of the funds from the $700 billion bailout to help keep the automakers out of bankruptcy.

Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) called the news “disappointing” and said by using taxpayer money, “Washington has failed both autoworkers and taxpayers.”

“The use of TARP funds is also regrettable, the latest in a growing list of TARP money uses that were not discussed with or envisioned by Congress when the program was authorized,” he said, “Now that billions in taxpayer funds are being put at risk, it is more essential than ever that our Democratic counterparts back away from threats to impose extreme environmental mandates on the auto industry that will jeopardize millions of American jobs.”

But not all Republicans agreed with Boehner.

Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.) said there was relief today in his district, which is located just outside the Detroit metropolitan area.

“It’s not as if we are jumping up and down,” he said. “There is a long road to hoe in a very short period of time.”

McCotter said the funds would allow the automakers to avoid Chapter 11 bankruptcy and give the incoming Obama administration a structure to work with when it assumes power in January.

Jackie Kucinich contributed to this report.