The grand finale was no finale at all Thursday on Capitol Hill, as Congress delayed voting on a $25 billion bailout for the auto industry. Lawmakers said they could reconsider it in December, but only if the auto industry first comes up with a viable plan for restructuring its business.
There was an eleventh-hour push by a bipartisan group of senators from states with prominent auto companies to come up with a bailout for Detroit's Big Three — Ford, Chrysler and GM. Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) said the proposal would tap $25 billion already approved by Congress for retooling the industry to make more fuel-efficient cars.
According to Levin, carmakers would apply to the Commerce Department for bridge loans from that fund and repay the money so it could eventually be used as it was originally intended.
"We believe that there's a reasonable chance that if this were put to a vote today or tomorrow, that it could get the 60 votes necessary," Levin said
A spokesperson for the White House said that "while we need to review the language, this is an agreement the president could support. We encourage the Congress to pass it as soon as possible."
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid nixed any such vote.
"They have a bipartisan agreement, but it's their agreement," he said. "Unfortunately, the sad reality is that no one has come up with a plan that can pass the House and the Senate and get signed by President Bush."
Reid said that while there is opposition among Democrats to approving more loans, they also don't want to see the auto industry collapse.
"We have decided the best way to proceed is to give the auto companies another opportunity to make their case ... to Congress and to the American people," he said.
The majority leader said that lawmakers are requesting that the automakers submit a business plan by Dec. 2 to Rep. Barney Frank (D-NY) and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), chairmen of the House Financial Services and Senate Banking committees, respectively.
"These two very able men will review the plan and, if necessary, hold hearings during the week of Dec. 2 to fully vet the auto industry's proposal," Reid said.
Should the plans presented to the heads of the banking committees pass muster, Reid said he would then call Congress back in session the week of Dec. 8 to consider making money available to the auto industry. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also made clear the automakers would have to deliver a convincing plan for survival.
"It is all about accountability and about viability," she said. "Until we can see a plan where the auto industry is held accountable, and a plan for viability on how they go into the future — until we see the plan, until they show us the plan, we cannot show them the money."
Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH), who wanted a vote Thursday on the bipartisan compromise plan, belittled the Democratic leaders' new proposal as unrealistic.
"How do you ask somebody to present a plan of viability when you haven't laid out for them what that plan should be?" he said.
Another backer of the bipartisan proposal, Sen. Kit Bond (R-MO), mentioned one item he thought automakers should propose.
"There are a lot of steps the auto industry is going to have to take," Bond said. "Selling corporate jets might be one, just as a suggestion."
Bond's reference was to anger caused by the Big Three carmakers' CEOs having flown to Washington on corporate jets to plead for help.
Rep. Frank also warned that taxpayers are also angry with Congress for thoughtlessly doling out money: "If we were to pass this right away, I could write the story for tomorrow: In a rushed, barely examined commitment of many, many more taxpayer dollars, Congress today leapt into an abyss."