WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats and the White House worked to resolve their last disputes Monday over terms of a $15 billion bailout for U.S. automakers — complete with a "car czar" to oversee the industry's reinvention of itself — that's expected to come to a vote as early as Wednesday.
Top Democrats gave the White House their proposal for rushing short-term loans to Detroit's Big Three through a plan that requires that the industry remake itself in order to survive. The Bush administration gave a cool initial response, saying the measure didn't do enough to ensure that only viable companies would get longer-term federal help. Negotiators worked into the night Monday to resolve differences.
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"We've made a lot of progress in recent days to develop legislation to help automakers restructure and achieve long-term viability," Dana Perino, the White House press secretary, said in a statement. "We'll continue to work with members on both sides of the aisle to achieve legislation that protects the good faith investment by taxpayers."
President George W. Bush said it was "hard to tell" whether a deal was imminent because definite conditions had to be met. "These are important companies, but on the other hand, we just don't want to put good money after bad," he said in an interview with ABC's Nightline.
Despite optimism that Congress and the White House could reach a swift agreement on the measure, it was still a tough sell on Capitol Hill.
"While we take no satisfaction in loaning taxpayer money to these companies, we know it must be done," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "This is no blank check or blind hope."
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., a key auto industry ally, said getting the roughly 15 Republicans needed to support the plan was an uphill battle.
The bill puts a government overseer named by Bush — a kind of "car czar" — in charge of setting guidelines for an industrywide overhaul, with the power to revoke the loans if the carmakers don't take sufficient steps to reinvent themselves.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the restructuring would require tough concessions from management, labor, creditors and others.
"We call this the barbershop. Everybody's getting a haircut here," Pelosi said.
Still, the White House said the draft didn't appear to contain strict enough conditions to ensure that long-term financing would be available only to companies that could survive, according to officials who would comment on the negotiations only on condition of anonymity.
The crux of the White House's concern is that there might not be enough clear, immediate protection for taxpayers if a company is not meeting its own promises for long-term viability after review by the president's overseer. The latest proposal suggests Congress might have to get involved again in a few months and pass a law to force a company to stick to its own plan — a potentially unwieldy political step.