WASHINGTON — Top Senate Democrats suggested Wednesday that a bill to rescue Detroit's Big Three automakers was stalled and challenged the Bush administration to take steps to save the industry if congressional efforts falter. The White House quickly rebuffed the suggestion.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada sought to lower expectations of reaching a deal on the $25 billion proposal before Congress quits for the year.
While he told the Senate he still hoped lawmakers could agree to an auto deal in the "next day or two" of the current lame-duck session, he added: "If we can't do it here legislatively, I would hope that the secretary of Treasury would listen loud and clear because they could take this into their own hands and do what I think is appropriate from their perspective."
Responded White House press secretary Dana Perino: "There's no appetite for that." She said it was up to Congress to act.
Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd, D-Conn., was even more downbeat, calling the possibility of reaching agreement "remote."
"I don't see how in the next few days this is going to move forward," Dodd told reporters. Still, he added, "That does not mean that there are not opportunities." He suggested that the Federal Reserve could possibly step up to the job.
The difficulties of striking a deal on the package before a new president and a new Congress with expanded Democratic majorities take office appeared to be too great to overcome. The deadlock persisted even as the heads of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler returned for a second day to plead for relief and as their congressional backers urged colleagues not to punish them for past mistakes.
General Motors Corp. CEO Rick Wagoner told the House Financial Services Committee that collapse of the U.S. auto industry could lead to a loss of 3 million jobs within the first year and ripple throughout communities around the nation.
In sometimes contentious testimony, Wagoner was pressed on when GM would run out of money if the loans weren't extended.
He said he couldn't say precisely, but that the company now was burning through "$5 billion each month."
Still, with the $25 billion emergency package, "We think we have a good shot to make it through this," Wagoner said. He said he anticipated that, if the package is approved, GM would qualify for about $10 billion to $12 billion of the money.
President George W. Bush and Republicans in Congress have been reluctant to use the Treasury Department's $700 billion financial bailout program to finance the loans.
The White House wants Congress to draw the $25 billion from an Energy Department program established to encourage production of fuel-efficient cars.
Perino said Wednesday the administration supports legislation to authorize just that, but will not go along with the proposal by Democratic leaders that an additional $25 billion be taken from the government's existing $700 billion Wall Street bailout fund.
"The purpose of the $700 billion was clearly intended for financial institutions, and we wanted to keep that whole," Perino said. .
If Congress quits without taking any action, "then the Congress will bear responsibility for anything that happens in the next couple of months during their long vacation," Perino said.
Congressional Republicans battled uphill to try to pick up Democratic support for the White House plan to allow auto companies to draw emergency loans from the $25 billion fuel-efficiency fund.
Democratic leaders have rejected such a course, and environmentalists don't want that money used for anything other than its intended purpose.
But the GOP approach, being crafted by Sens. Kit Bond, R-Mo., and George Voinovich, R-Ohio, would require the automakers to plow back into the fund repaid loans, interest and income from equity stakes.
The proposal, outlined in a position paper obtained by The Associated Press, is intended to satisfy Democrats concerned about raiding the fuel-efficiency loan program. Since auto makers would not be tapping those funds immediately, supporters argue, the money would be restored by the time they were needed.
During the House hearing Wednesday, Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., asked the three auto chiefs seated at the witness table before him to raise their hands if they had come to Washington on commercial airliners. No hands went up. Then he asked if any planned to sell their corporate jets. Again, no hands went up.
Sherman and Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., told the auto executives they were having a hard time justifying to their constituents bailing out companies whose chiefs fly around in expensive private jets.
Ackerman said there was "a delicious irony in seeing private luxury jets flying into Washington, D.C., and people coming off them with tin cups in their hands. ... It's almost like seeing a guy show up at the soup kitchen in high hat and tuxedo."
A Senate vote on an automotive bailout plan, which would also extend jobless benefits, could come as early as Thursday, but it clearly lacks the necessary support to advance.
Associated Press writers Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Sam Hananel contributed to this story.
(This version CORRECTS quote to "private luxury jets."))