A Democratic Congress, unwilling or unable to approve a $25 billion bailout for Detroit's Big Three, appears ready to punt the automakers' fate to a lame-duck Republican president.
Caught in the middle of the who-blinks-first standoff are legions of manufacturing firms and auto dealers – and millions of Americans' jobs.
U.S. auto companies employ nearly a quarter-million workers, and more than 730,000 other people have jobs producing the materials and parts for cars. About 1 million on top of that work in dealerships nationwide. If just one of the auto giants were to go belly up, some estimates put U.S. job losses next year at 2.5 million.
“If GM is telling us the truth, they go into bankruptcy and you see a cascade like you have never seen,” said Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, who was working on one rescue plan Wednesday. “If people want to go home and not do anything, I think that they're going to have that on their hands.”
The automakers – hobbled by lackluster sales and choked credit – are burning through money at an alarming and accelerating rate: about $18 billion in the last quarter alone. General Motors Corp. has said it could collapse within weeks, and there are indications that Chrysler LLC might not be far behind. Ford Motor Co. has said it could get through the end of 2008, but it's unclear how much longer.
For now, however, with the federal emergency loan plan headed for a roadblock in the Senate, lawmakers in both parties are engaged in a high-stakes game of chicken, positioning themselves to blame each other for the failure.
“The Congress need do nothing” during its post-election session this week, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the majority leader, said Wednesday. But he also said he hoped lawmakers could strike an elusive deal to carve $25 billion in new auto industry loans out of the $700 billion Wall Street rescue fund.
But it's really up to President Bush's team to act, he said.
Not our responsibility, countered the White House.
“If Congress leaves for a two-month vacation without having addressed this important issue … then the Congress will bear responsibility for anything that happens in the next couple of months during their long vacation,” said White House press secretary Dana Perino.
She said there was no appetite in the administration for using the financial industry bailout money to help auto companies.
The White House and congressional Republicans instead called on Democrats to sign on to a GOP plan to divert a $25 billion loan program created by Congress in September – designed to help the companies develop more fuel-efficient vehicles – to meet the auto giants' immediate financial needs.
Voinovich and Missouri Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., were at work on that measure Wednesday, trying to placate skeptical Democrats by including a guarantee that the fuel-efficiency loan fund would ultimately be replenished.