MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR news, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block. Economic stimulus, auto industry bailout, we're hearing a lot of talk about these measures. But action, well, that's another thing. Senators return to Washington today for a lame-duck session after a six-week break. Help for the auto industry tops Democratic leaders' list of priorities. But as NPR's David Welna reports, many senators appear to be feeling bailout burnout.
DAVID WELNA: As Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid opened today's post-election session, he proposed an economic stimulus package that includes help for the U.S.-owned auto industry. And if that's rejected, he said he'll try again by combining the carmaker's aid with an extension of unemployment benefits.
Senate Majority Leader HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): Senators have a choice to make. We can wait until January, when we have a new Congress and a new president, or we could start trying to work on some of these problems now.
WELNA: Reid got some spirited support on the Senate floor from Maryland Democrat Barbara Mikulski.
Senator BARBARA MIKULSKI (Democrat, Maryland): This session of the Senate should not be called a lame duck. We should not neither be lame nor should we duck the big issues facing our country.
WELNA: But Mikulski did not call for the $25 billion worth of federally-guaranteed loans that Reid is seeking. Instead, she offered her own proposal costing $8 billion, tax breaks for those buying cars between now and the end of next year. Missouri Republican Kit Bond co-sponsored the proposal, but Bond also called for direct help for the auto industry, as long as some strings are attached.
Senator KIT BOND (Republican, Missouri): Funds should be conditioned on a strong restructuring plan for the industry and for each recipient of the funds, so that this aid is a bridge to somewhere, not a bridge to nowhere.
WELNA: Another Republican, Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter, said he was inclined to consider a bailout for the auto industry, but only if there's a plan to make it economically viable.
Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): The industry has been on notice for a long time, that they were in a very difficult, competitive situation, that the standards on gas mileage were about to be imposed and were imposed in legislation last year, and what have they done?
WELNA: It wasn't just Republicans criticizing Detroit. Florida Democrat Bill Nelson said the auto industry should not be rewarded for poor management.
Senator BILL NELSON (Democrat, Florida): For too long, our U.S. domestic automakers have sailed against the winds of change and have failed to produce vehicles for the 21st century - for that matter, for the last half of the 20th century.
WELNA: Still, Nelson said, too many other American jobs depend on the auto industry for it to be allowed to fail. Such reasoning failed to sway Arizona Republican Jon Kyl, though. For him, a bridge loan to Detroit's automakers is a bridge too far.
Senator JON KYL (Republican, Arizona): There's no indication that the car companies would do anything different than they've been doing, which has been a big failure, which is why they need the bailout. And there's no reason to throw money at a problem which is not going to get solved.
WELNA: As the Senate's number two Republican, Kyl's job is to know how his GOP colleagues intend to vote. But when asked today how many other Republicans share his opposition to an auto industry bailout, Kyl begged off.
Senator KYL: We just got here Monday. I've talked to about four of my colleagues, so I don't know.
WELNA: Senate Democrats would likely need the support of at least 10 Republicans to pass a bailout for Detroit. That appears too much to hope for in this lame-duck session, and since Democrats are taking over at least half a dozen GOP-held Senate seats in January, today's arguments may be just the opening salvos of a debate that will conclude in the next Congress. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.