WASHINGTON — A $14-billion rescue package for the nation's imperiled auto industry sped to approval in the House Wednesday night, but the emergency bailout was still in jeopardy from Republicans who were setting out roadblocks in the Senate.
Democrats and the Bush White House hoped for a Senate vote as early as today and enactment by week's end. They argued that the loans authorized by the measure were needed to stave off disaster for the auto industry — and a crushing further blow to the reeling national economy.
The legislation, approved 237-170 by the House, would provide money within days to cash-starved General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC. Ford Motor Co., which has said it has enough to stay afloat, would also be eligible for federal aid.
Republicans were preparing a strong fight against the aid plan in the Senate, not only taking on the Democrats but standing in open revolt against their party's lame-duck president on the measure.
The Republicans want to force the companies into bankruptcy or mandate hefty concessions from autoworkers and creditors as a condition of any federal aid. They also oppose an environmental mandate that House Democrats insisted on including in the measure.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House-passed bill represented "tough love" for U.S. auto companies and "giving a chance — this one more chance — to this great industry."
The White House, struggling to sell the package to congressional Republicans, said earlier that a carmaker bankruptcy could be fatal to the auto industry and have a devastating impact on workers, families and the economy.
"We believe the legislation developed in recent days is an effective and responsible approach to deal with troubled automakers and ensure the necessary restructuring occurs," said Dana Perino, the White House press secretary.
But the measure faces a difficult road in the Senate, where it needs 60 votes to advance. Rank-and-file Senate Republicans skewered the bill during a closed-door luncheon with White House chief of staff Josh Bolten, who was dispatched to Capitol Hill to make a case for the rescue package.
Even among Senate Democrats, the level of support was still uncertain. In the House, 20 Democrats joined 150 Republicans in voting "no," while 32 Republicans sided with 205 Democrats to back the bill.
Besides providing cash for the auto companies, it would create a government "car czar," to be named by President Bush to dole out the loans, with the power to take back the money and force the carmakers into bankruptcy next spring if they didn't cut quick deals with labor unions, creditors and others to restructure their businesses and become viable.
"To give up on the auto industry now would be to condemn the American economy at one of its most vulnerable periods in our economic history to a degree of further hurt," said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass, the Financial Services Committee chairman.
Behind the scenes, Senate Democratic and Republican leaders scrambled for a deal that would allow votes on the bill today. Some GOP senators demanded votes on an alternative that would order the automakers to take specific actions to restructure — including steep wage cuts and debt restructuring — in return for federal money.
Opposition from Republicans reflected the tricky task of pushing yet another federal rescue through a bailout-weary Congress, with Bush's influence on the wane.