WASHINGTON — Imperiled automakers and their union worked feverishly Wednesday to sell a skeptical Congress on a $34-billion aid plan, promising labor concessions and restructuring.
The Senate's Democratic leader said there still weren't enough votes to tap the $700-billion federal bailout fund to prop up the Big Three.
One day before the chiefs of the auto companies return to Congress to make their urgent cases for bailout billions from the fund, Sen. Harry Reid said, "I just don't think we have the votes to do that now."
In Capitol Hill meetings, industry officials said the collapse of one or more of the Big Three carmakers could greatly worsen the nation's recession.
"We're on the brink with the U.S. auto manufacturing industry. We're down to months left," said Chrysler's vice chairman, Jim Press.
The United Auto Workers union, scrambling to preserve jobs and benefits, agreed at an emergency meeting in Detroit to allow the companies to delay payments to a multibillion-dollar, union-run health care trust and to scale back a jobs bank, in which laid-off workers are paid most of their wages. The concessions could help mollify some lawmakers who have criticized the union's benefits as too rich.
The Bush administration and auto-state Republicans and Democrats are pushing to help the automakers with aid from a different source: a previously approved $25-billion program that's supposed to be used to help them produce more environmentally advanced vehicles.
Environmentalists — and a number of powerful friends in Congress — vigorously oppose that idea.
Reid, D-Nev., said the administration could act unilaterally to use a portion of the Wall Street bailout program for loans to the automakers, but the White House has consistently resisted that approach.
"There's talk going around now that the Bush White House may ask for" the second $350-billion installment of the $700-billion financial industry rescue fund, Reid said. If Bush's team doesn't act, he said, "I think that we are probably going to have to try to do something" in Congress.
Reid said he'd rely on Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., the Banking Committee chairman, to determine what kind of legislation would be appropriate.
The autoworkers' concessions are "a step in the right direction," he said.
"I think it's too bad that negotiated contracts between labor and management are going to have to be changed. But it's obvious to everyone — as strong of a union guy as I am — it's obvious that there has to be some changes made," Reid said.
Today's hearings are televised.