JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS and KEN THOMAS
WASHINGTON – A government "car czar" with the power to force U.S. automakers into bankruptcy would dole out $15 billion in emergency loans to the failing industry under an emerging deal between the White House and congressional Democrats.
Officials struck an agreement in principle on the measure Tuesday and hoped to finalize it and schedule swift House and Senate votes as early as Wednesday. Money could be disbursed within days to cash-starved General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC, while Ford Motor Co. — which has said it has enough liquidity to stay afloat — would be eligible for federal aid.
All three would have to negotiate with labor unions, creditors and others and submit blueprints by March 31 to an industry czar named by President George W. Bush showing how they would restructure to ensure their survival. If not, the emergency loans would be revoked, the companies cut off from further federal help, and the government overseer could order his own overhaul, including forcing them into bankruptcy.
After days of marathon negotiations over the plan, congressional aides and White House officials were still fine-tuning legislative details of the agreement. It could face substantial obstacles from Republican lawmakers, who remained skeptical of the White House-negotiated plan.
A group of conservatives led by Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., who has threatened to block the measure, planned a midday news conference Wednesday.
As the measure took shape Tuesday, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he was concerned that Democrats were proposing a package that "fails to require the kind of serious reform that will ensure long-term viability for struggling automobile companies."
With their approach, "we open the door to unlimited federal subsidies in the future," McConnell said.
Getting 60 votes for an agreement, with many senators expected to be absent for the emergency, postelection debate, could be tricky.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., an ally of the auto industry, said, "This gets us to the 20-yard line, but getting over the goal line will take a major effort, particularly in the Senate."
He called for Bush and President-elect Barack Obama to lobby personally for the auto bailout.
A breakthrough on the measure came when negotiators reached a compromise to require the czar to revoke the loans and deny any further federal aid to automakers that don't strike restructuring deals by next spring. Democrats had proposed giving the overseer that option but not requiring it.
"A great deal of progress has been made on auto legislation that will protect the taxpayer and ensure that short-term financing is available only to companies prepared to undertake the dramatic restructuring necessary to become viable and competitive," Dana Perino, the White House press secretary, said late Tuesday.
One potential stumbling block remained. Democrats' were still refusing to scrap language, vehemently opposed by the White House, that would force the carmakers to drop lawsuits challenging tough emissions limits in California and other states.
That measure "kills the deal," said Dan Meyer, Bush's top lobbyist.
Senior Democratic aides acknowledged as much Tuesday and said they expected the provision to be dropped.
Environmentalists, who count House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., among their closest allies, already were irate that the bailout uses money set aside for a program to help the automakers finance the retooling of their factories so they could produce greener vehicles.
Another remaining hang-up was over ensuring that Cerberus, the private equity firm that owns Chrysler LLC, would reimburse the government if the auto company defaulted on its loan, said a congressional negotiator who spoke only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose details of the emerging deal.
The measure would attach an array of conditions to the bailout money, including some of the same restrictions imposed on banks as part of the $700 billion Wall Street rescue. Among them are limits on executive compensation, a prohibition on paying dividends and requirements that the government share in future profits and taxpayers be repaid before any other shareholders.
Also included in the plan is a requirement that the carmakers taking federal aid get rid of their corporate jets — which became a potent symbol when the Big Three CEOs used them for their initial trips to Washington to plead before Congress for government assistance.