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December 24, 2008 > Long haul to government help for US automakers

Long haul to government help for US automakers

By Julie Hirschfeld Davis, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP), Dec 20 _ General Motors chief Rick Wagoner got the call at 8 p.m. a week before Christmas.

Bailout billions were on the way _ finally _ for his once mighty but now sinking company along with Chrysler LLC. Terms for $17.4 billion in bridge loans came through from Washington at around 2:30 a.m. and executives pored over the details until daybreak.

At least one wore the previous day's clothes as he watched President George W. Bush announce the aid at the White House on Friday.

It was hardly the first all-nighter that Detroit's Big Three auto executives, the United Auto Workers labor union, and the officials in Washington had pulled in six weeks of drama leading up to the White House's announcement.

High-stakes talks unfolded against a backdrop of a battered economy and a historic transition from one presidential administration to the next as GM and Chrysler teetered on the brink of collapse, promising more pain _ economic and political.

The negotiations were shaped by a bailout-fatigued postelection Congress; a lame-duck president worried about his legacy; and auto executives and unions scrambling to remake themselves as their industry's way of life slid toward oblivion. On the sidelines was President-elect Barack Obama, reluctant until the end to play a major role, although he will own the outcome.

The bailout began taking shape just after Election Day, Nov. 4. Executives from GM and Chrysler, which had been in merger talks geared toward stabilizing themselves, gathered in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's ornate Capitol office with officials from Ford Motor Co. to say things were worse than they had initially thought.

They were burning through cash at an alarming rate, they told Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and needed $25 billion just to stay afloat until New Year's.

Democratic Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, at 82 the longest-serving member of the House, was in a wheelchair after recent knee replacement surgery and wearing a black warm-up suit at the late-afternoon meeting _ the personification of the limping industry he was fighting to save in his home state.

By week's end Pelosi and Reid had fired off a letter asking Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to tap the Wall Street rescue fund to help the carmakers. Bush's team said no _ any aid would have to come from an existing $25 billion program for the production of fuel-efficient cars.

In the thick of the stalemate, Wagoner, Ford chief executive Alan Mulally and his Chrysler counterpart Bob Nardelli boarded private jets to make the trip from Detroit to Washington for high-profile congressional hearings to beg for the aid.

``It's almost like seeing a guy show up at the soup kitchen in high hat and tuxedo,'' groused Rep. Gary Ackerman, a New York Democrat.

Members of the House and Senate, many still smarting from the political sting of having backed the $700 billion bank bailout, were outraged.

So it wasn't too surprising when, days later, Democratic leaders scrapped votes on the auto bailout.

``Until they show us the plan, we cannot show them the money,'' Pelosi said.

The White House said Bush had ``no appetite'' to act on his own. Any rescue was off until after the Thanksgiving holiday in late November.

Like underachieving children scolded by an irate teacher, the Big Three were given holiday homework: come back for another round of hearings with written restructuring plans in hand.

The return trip was nothing like the first. Nardelli, Mulally and Wagoner traveled in separate fuel-efficient vehicles, making the 520-mile (837-kilometer) trip from Detroit along the highways of four states. Wagoner lunched at a Quiznos sandwich restaurant and gassed up at a Pilot station.

The second round of hearings went better. Some lawmakers even sympathized publicly with the penitent auto chiefs for a public shaming that bailed-out banks never had to endure.

``I'm sure you all feel a little singled out,'' Rep. Spencer Bachus, an Alabama Republican, told them. ``There seems to be a glaring double standard.''

A breakthrough came that Friday, when Pelosi broke with environmentalists and dropped her opposition to using the fuel-efficiency money for the bailout.

Aides to Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, the House Financial Services Committee chairman, and Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee chairman, spent the weekend hammering out details of a compromise. On Tuesday, they met in Pelosi's office with top White House officials _ deputy chief of staff Joel Kaplan, economic adviser Keith Hennessey and top lobbyist Dan Meyer _ who left sounding hopeful of a deal.

Within hours, the administration was briefing reporters on a late-night, hastily arranged conference call on the ``conceptual agreement.''

The package, which Pelosi called ``tough love'' for the companies, easily passed the House on Dec. 10. But it was dead on arrival in the Senate, where Republicans were in full revolt against Bush over it.

At a private lunch in the Capitol with Vice President Dick Cheney and White House chief of staff Josh Bolten, Republicans unloaded a barrage of criticism, calling the measure weak and unacceptable. The Republicans had refused to take part in the negotiations that produced the compromise.

Republican senators lined up behind Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who wanted to condition any auto aid on big concessions from labor and creditors.

There was one last chance to save the dying bill. Corker and Dodd convened an unprecedented meeting at the Capitol that included the automakers and the UAW. Their session, held in the stately Senate Foreign Relations Committee room, dragged on for hours, with staff aides eventually delivering pizza. Upstairs, just off the Senate floor, a holiday reception was in full swing, and it seemed like the auto bailout talks could drag until Christmas

When Corker emerged, it was to brief fellow Republicans on an emerging agreement. Players in both parties said they were on the brink of a deal, and Reid walked from his office to the Senate floor to announce, ``We're ready to go.''

But Republicans would not accept the proposal because the UAW had refused to commit to bringing wages and benefits in line with those paid by Japanese automakers to workers at their U.S. plants, by the end of next year. Reid quickly called a late-night vote, and the measure predictably failed.

``I dread looking at Wall Street tomorrow,'' a grim Reid said.

The administration picked up where Congress left off and spent days quietly cobbling together its plan. It finally came together on Thursday night even as the administration suggested that bankruptcy might be the only solution. But in the end, officials phoned auto executives to detail the terms for their long-awaited lifeline.

After six weeks of urgent pleas, it was pretty much take it or leave it at that point.

``Frankly,'' Wagoner said, ``there wasn't a huge amount of negotiation.''

___

Associated Press writers Ken Thomas in Washington and Kimberly S. Johnson in Detroit contributed to this report.

___

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White House: http://tinyurl.com/443jje

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