WASHINGTON — Desperate U.S. automakers ran into fresh obstacles from skeptical lawmakers Thursday as they appealed with rising urgency — and a new dose of humility — for a $34-billion bailout. Without help, one senator said, "we're looking at a death sentence."
With lawmakers in both parties pressing the automakers to consider a prenegotiated bankruptcy — something they have consistently shunned — Ford, Chrysler and General Motors were contemplating a government-run restructuring that could yield results similar to bankruptcy, including massive downsizing, in return for the bailout billions. But there was no assurance they could get even that.
And that wasn't all the unwelcome news. Congressional officials said that one leading proposal — to tap a fund already set aside for making cars environmentally efficient — wouldn't give the carmakers nearly as much money as they say they need.
The auto executives pleaded with lawmakers at a contentious Capitol Hill hearing — their second round in as many weeks — for emergency aid before year's end. But with time running out on the current Congress, skepticism about the bailout appeared to be as strong as ever.
"In all due respect, folks, I don't think there's faith that the next … three months will work out given the past history," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
"No thinking person thinks that all three companies can survive," said Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee.
Chris Dodd, chairman of the Banking Committee, was the senator who spoke of a death sentence — though he also said, "We're not going to leave town without trying" to help.
The auto executives are to make their case at a House hearing today, and Congress could take up rescue legislation next week in an emergency session.
No one was talking optimistically about their chances, and the skepticism wasn't limited to Capitol Hill.
President Bush said in an interview with NBC News, "No matter how important the autos are to our economy, we don't want to put good money after bad."
Repentant after a botched first crack at bailout pleas, the chief executives of Detroit's Big Three automakers all agreed during Thursday's session that a multibillion-dollar bailout deal would include a supervisory government board that could order major overhauls of the companies if deemed necessary for survival. "We made mistakes, which we're learning from," GM chief Rick Wagoner said. Ford CEO Alan Mulally also acknowledged big mistakes, saying his company's approach once was, "If you build it, they will come."
United Auto Workers union president Ron Gettelfinger, aligned with the industry in pressing for the aid, told senators that any kind of bankruptcy, even a prepackaged one, was not "a viable option."