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Obama Suggested Bush Help Automakers, Aides Say

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WASHINGTON — President-elect Obama suggested to President Bush that the administration immediately provide extra help to struggling U.S. automakers, aides to the Democrat say, in their first face-to-face meeting since Election Day.

Obama's aides said the president-elect brought up the issue with Bush during their two-hour White House talks on Monday, expressing his view that action is needed now, not just to help the U.S. companies but also the broader economy, because of their enormous reach. Obama raised the idea of an administration point person on autos with a portfolio aimed at improving the long-term health of the companies.

Bush repeated his position, recently stated by staff, that he is open to helping the automakers.

In addition, amid discussions in Washington over whether new economic stimulus spending is needed, Obama focused in his meeting with Bush on his desire for it while the president stressed that his main priority for any postelection action out of Congress is approval of a long-stalled free trade agreement with Colombia, said people familiar with the conversation between the two men. The sources declined to be named publicly because of the private nature of the talks.

The outlines of the conversation between the 43rd and soon-to-be 44th presidents shows just how starkly different are policy and philosophical approaches of the two men, one Democrat and one Republican. Obama has opposed the Colombia free trade agreement while Bush has remained skeptical of the need for additional stimulus.

Reflecting the delicate dance of a meeting between outgoing and incoming presidents _ one still in charge and one about to be _ neither man made the kind of direct requests of nor dealmaking commitments to the other that could violate unspoken protocols covering the transfer of power in American history. But each made sure the other knew what they want.

"In no way did the president suggest that there was a quid pro quo," said White House press secretary Dana Perino. But, she added, "he did talk about the merits of free trade."

Obama transition chief John Podesta also said "there was no quid pro quo in the conversation" between the two men and called news reports to that effect "not accurate."

Perino said Bush described the meeting as "constructive, relaxed and friendly," covering problems at home and abroad and his personal pledge for a smooth transition.

There clearly is momentum building for some new aid to automakers.

The White House has made clear that Bush would prefer to see if already approved action might be enough before jumping in with a government bailout of yet another company or industry.

In September, Congress approved $25 billion in loans to automakers to help them retool plants to build more fuel-efficient vehicles, and thus become more solid and profitable competitors in the global marketplace. Though the administration is working to give automakers quick access to that money, it still would likely not come fast enough _ or in big enough amounts _ to satisfy the drowning companies.

Over the weekend, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid asked the administration to consider expanding the $700 billion bailout for financial firms to include car companies. The administration had concluded the law doesn't allow automakers to be eligible under the main, stock-purchase part of the program.

"We don't see anything in there that would give us the authority to help individual industries," Perino said Tuesday. "We have gone as far as we can with the authority given us."

At a news conference last Friday, Obama called automakers "the backbone of American manufacturing" and said he hoped the administration would "do everything it can to accelerate the retooling assistance." Perino said Monday it was open to that, and would listen to lawmakers' ideas for making more loans available or for clarifying the bailout law to make clear that other industries beyond banks qualify.

The debate comes as General Motors, Ford and Chrysler are burning through cash and bleeding jobs. Analysts are predicting that G.M., in particular, might not last the year without a government bailout.

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Associated Press writer Liz Sidoti contributed to this story from Chicago.