WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of auto-state senators reached a last-ditch compromise Thursday to throw Detroit's Big Three a government lifeline worth billions, but the plan faces an uphill battle in a reluctant Senate.
With the auto bailout stalled, the fate of hundreds of thousands of workers and Detroit's once-venerable car companies hangs in the balance.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., canceled plans for a vote on a bill to carve $25 billion in new loans out of the $700 billion Wall Street rescue fund. The Bush administration and congressional Republicans oppose that plan.
Warning of economic disaster, Democrats and Republicans from auto industry states reached a deal Thursday on an alternative package that would temporarily divert money from a fuel-efficiency loan program to cover the Big Three's immediate costs. But it was unclear whether it could draw enough support to pass.
The group, led by Sens. Carl M. Levin, D-Mich. and Kit Bond, R-Mo., scheduled a news conference to announce details.
Even if agreement can be reached to consider their plan, Reid signaled earlier Thursday that the Senate was not likely do so until after Thanksgiving.
"We have some procedural roadblocks," Reid said.
With all sides sensing doom for a Big Three automaker rescue, the finger-pointing proceeded.
White House press secretary Dana Perino on Thursday blamed Reid for not allowing the Republicans' separate auto-aid plan to come up for a vote.
"Unfortunately it looks like Sen. Reid just wants to pick up his ball and go home for the next two weeks — two months — for vacation," she said.
Pressed on what the White House would do if Congress can't agree on a plan to rescue the automakers this week, Perino said she thought lawmakers would return after the Thanksgiving holiday for an emergency legislative session if an auto company was in imminent danger of collapsing.
"I can't imagine a scenario where they wouldn't come back, unless the answer is that they just don't care. And if that's the case, then the American people ought to know that."
Congressional Democrats countered that the Treasury Department already had the power to grant emergency funds to the automakers, but the Bush administration opposed the approach.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney stood steadfastly behind forces opposing the bailout.
Speaking Thursday morning amid growing signs of gridlock in Congress, Romney said, "There's no question but that if you just write a check, you're going to see these companies go out of business ultimately."
Romney, who had run for the Republican presidential nomination, told CBS' "The Early Show" that he doesn't want to see the carmakers go out of business, "but we don't want them to continue business as usual."
The leaders of General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC painted a grim picture of their financial position during two days of congressional hearings, warning that the collapse of the auto industry could lead to the loss of 3 million jobs. Detroit's automakers, hurt by a sharp drop in sales and a nearly frozen credit market, burned through nearly $18 billion in cash reserves during the last quarter — about $7 billion at GM, almost $8 billion at Ford and $3 billion at Chrysler. Both GM and Chrysler said they could collapse in weeks.
"I don't believe we have the luxury of a lot of time," GM CEO Rick Wagoner told a House hearing.
Alan Mulally, the CEO of Ford Motor Co., said the company had enough cash reserves to make it through 2009. But United Auto Workers union president Ron Gettelfinger said a bankruptcy could spawn others.
"If there's a Chapter 11 (for) one of the companies, it will drag at least one other with them, if not all of them. And I do not believe Chapter 11 is where it will end. It will go to liquidation," he said ominously.
Automakers ran into more resistance from House lawmakers, who chastised the executives for fighting tougher fuel-efficiency standards in the past and questioned their use of private jets while at the same time seeking government handouts.
"My fear is that you're going to take this money and continue the same stupid decisions you've made for 25 years," said Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass.
The stakes are high. The Detroit automakers employ nearly a quarter-million workers, and more than 730,000 other workers produce materials and parts that go into cars. About 1 million more people work in dealerships nationwide. If just one of the automakers declared bankruptcy, some estimates put U.S. job losses next year as high as 2.5 million.
The White House and congressional Republicans have urged Democrats to support a GOP plan to divert a $25 billion loan program created by Congress in September — designed to help the companies develop more fuel-efficient vehicles — to meet the auto giants' immediate financial needs.
Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., Kit Bond. R-Mo., and George Voinovich, R-Ohio, are trying to broker an alternative that could provide bridge loans or a guarantee that the fuel-efficiency loan fund ultimately would be replenished. Negotiators were discussing a scaled-down aid package of $5 billion to $8 billion to help the automakers survive through year's end.
But it was unclear if any progress could be made. Democrats strongly oppose letting the car companies tap into the energy loans for short-term cash-flow needs.
Despite the gridlock in Congress, there could be a contingency plan: a return to Washington in December for another postelection session to try to strike a deal.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., noted that Democratic leaders were planning to gather for an economic conference the week of Dec. 8. "That is available," Hoyer said. "The year has not ended."
Associated Press writers Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Sam Hananel in Washington and Tom Krisher in Detroit contributed to this report.