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Will lame ducks decide car industry's fate?

A defeated and retiring group of Republican senators, one-tenth of the chamber's membership, may be the decisive voting bloc on the proposed automaker bailout loan.
Image: Elizabeth Dole and Alan Mulally
Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., right, greets Ford Chief Executive Officer Alan Mulally on Capitol Hill in Washington.Susan Walsh / AP
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If the Senate votes next week on a $34 billion taxpayer loan to the three U.S. automakers, lame ducks may prove to be a decisive bloc.

It is this defeated and retiring group of Republican senators, one-tenth of the Senate’s membership, who may decide the fate of the loan and perhaps the fate of the car industry itself.

For these 10 Republicans, there will be no electoral fallout to this vote since they are already retiring or have been forced out by their states’ voters.

It’s a political scientist’s dream; an historic vote on which a significant percentage of senators face no consequences at the ballot box.

The chief executives of the "Big Three" U.S. automakers testified before the Senate Banking Committee Thursday, with Democratic senators voicing support for some interim solution, possibly including a short-term loan combined with the appointment of a general overseer.

Uncertain whether Senate will vote
But it’s by no means certain that the Senate will vote next week.

Democratic leaders still appeared to be searching Thursday for a way to quickly write the legislation and find enough senators to support a loan.

Two senators at Thursday’s hearing said the lame-duck aspect of a potential vote will not change anything.

Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, one of four Republican senators defeated in last month’s elections, was one of the few Republicans on the Banking Committee to sit stoically through almost all of the six-hour hearing.

Two other lame-duck Republicans on the committee, Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida and Sen. Wayne Allard of Colorado, did not show up for the hearing.

Asked if her lame-duck status made her see the potential vote any differently, Dole said as she left the hearing, “No. I will cast a responsible vote based on having been through four hours of hearings and a lot of reading.” Sentiment among people in North Carolina, she said, is “on both sides.”

Dole voted against the $700 billion Troubled Asset Recovery Program Congress enacted in October.

“When you’re elected to the serve in the U.S. Senate, you’re elected to serve until your term is done,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, a member of the Banking Committee, who is still in his first term as a senator. “I don’t have any problem whatsoever having ten people who are lame ducks voting on this bill. I think it is their duty. I don’t think they’d vote wrong or right based on a lame-duck status.”

Apart from the four defeated GOP senators, five other Republicans are retiring when their terms end on Jan. 3, 2009 and one more, Martinez, announced last week he will not seek re-election in 2010.

Lame-duck vote on trade accord in 1994
There is precedent for a historic vote on economic legislation by a lame-duck Congress: In November and December of 1994, after the Democrats had lost control of Congress, the House and Senate voted to approve a new global pact to extend the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

Opponents of globalization and free trade were adamantly opposed to the accord, arguing it would cost American jobs in textile and apparel industries.

GATT opponents also criticized the lame-duck members voting on such a significant piece of legislation. According to Congressional Quarterly, 85 outgoing House members, one-fifth of the total membership, and ten retiring or defeated senators voted on the accord.

Still left to play out next week is the politics of the car industry vote: if it occurs, and the assignment of blame if the Senate defeats a loan bill and shortly thereafter one or more of the car makers goes into liquidation or bankruptcy.

Most voters may not expect rigorous consistency from members of Congress, but for those 74 senators who on Oct. 1 voted for the $700 billion Troubled Asset Rescue Plan, there is the question: How can they justify voting against the much smaller “troubled car maker rescue plan?"

But for the 10 retiring senators, this is a vote they will not need to justify — they have no voters to answer to.