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Obama, House, and Senate zero-in on auto aid

As aides reveal that president-elect Barack Obama discussed aid for struggling automakers at the White House, congressional leaders reveal their own relief plans for Detroit.
Image: President Bush and Barack Obama in Oval Office
President Bush and President-elect Obama meet in the Oval Office on Monday.Eric Draper / The White House
/ Source: The Associated Press

President-elect Barack Obama urged President Bush to immediately provide extra help to struggling U.S. automakers in the men's first face-to-face meeting at the White House, aides to the Democrat say. This comes as leaders of the House and Senate move forward with their own plans for sending aid to Detroit.

Obama's aides said the president-elect brought up the issue with Bush during their two-hour talks on Monday, expressing his view that immediate action was needed, 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: Help without firm commitments
Reflecting the delicate dance of a meeting between outgoing and incoming presidents — one still in charge and one about to be — Bush repeated his position that he is open to helping the automakers without making firm commitments.

"In no way did president the 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."

The Illinois senator's spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said only that the discussion involved "the broad health of the industry" and was not just limited to any one of the three largest car makers.

In September, Congress approved $25 billion in loans to automakers to help them retool plans 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.

Pelosi to seek relief legislation
On Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called for “emergency and limited financial assistance” for the battered auto industry and urged the outgoing Bush administration to join lawmakers in reaching a quick compromise.

In a written statement, the California Democrat said the aid was needed “in order to prevent the failure of one or more of the major American automobile manufacturers, which would have a devastating impact on our economy, particularly on the men and women who work in that industry....”

“Congress and the Bush administration must take immediate action,” she added.

Administration officials have concluded that the bailout bill that passed earlier does not permit loans to the auto industry, but lawmakers are expected to return to the Capitol for a brief postelection session beginning next week.

Pelosi’s statement did not specify how large an aid package she prefers.

Instead, she said she had asked Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, to draft legislation.

A companion effort is under way in the Senate.

The Senate is scheduled to meet next week in a postelection session, but until Pelosi issued her statement, it was not clear the House would follow suit.

'Backbone of American manufacturing'
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 the White House 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.

Polls ahead of the elections showed that Obama was viewed as the best candidate to fix the economy. An Associated Press-GfK poll released Tuesday showed that 7 in 10 Americans, or 72 percent, voice confidence the president-elect will make the changes needed to revive the stalling economy. Underscoring how widely the public is counting on its new leader, 44 percent of Republicans joined nearly all Democrats and most independents in expressing that belief.

The president and Obama also talked about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and financial crisis. At the same time, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama talked about raising daughters in the nation's most famous house. Then Obama flew back to Chicago to work on setting up the new administration that he will take over in just 10 weeks' time.

The 43rd president and the man who will be the 44th commander in chief met alone in the Oval Office, with no handlers or staff. It was Obama's first time in the storied workspace, even though he had been to the White House previously for events.

The week ahead
Aside from a brief public appearance at a Veterans Day event in Chicago, Obama planned to huddle in private with top advisers planning for the transfer of presidential power in January. His aides say no Cabinet positions are to be announced this week, though White House staff positions may come later in the week.

Aides say Obama talks with transition chief John Podesta and other transition committee members several times a day, as well as with Rahm Emanuel, the Illinois congressman who was tapped for White House chief of staff.

Obama is expected to remain in Chicago all week, and aides say he doesn't plan to meet with world leaders in the United States this weekend for a summit on the global economic crisis.

"He's very interested and thought it was a good idea to have the meeting, but ... there's only one president at a time, and we will stay up to date and briefed on what's going on but will not be a participant," Gibbs said, adding that "it's a possibility" that Obama advisers will take part in the meeting.