Once, and still, an adamant opponent to the $700-billion bailout for the financial industry, U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite is softening her stance when it comes to loaning money to major U.S. automakers.
The Brooksville Republican called the financial bailout "extortion," but she believes the "auto industry is a little easier to feel sorry for than the highfalutin investment bankers and banks."
Brown-Waite still puts the blame on slow-to-react companies and bloated union contracts. She remains undecided at this point, and said calls to her office from those against a bailout outnumber those in favor, by a 60 percent to 40 percent margin.
Before casting a vote to provide $25-billion in aid to Detroit's Big Three, she — like many lawmakers on Capitol Hill — wants to see the cash-strapped companies make some concessions.
"I believe it is incumbent upon the automobile industry to come forth with some concessions to make this more palatable so that I could possibly (vote for it)," Brown-Waite said in a interview from Washington. "But we are not going to do a stopgap measure which: a) might not be enough and b) might just be postponing the inevitable."
The three-term lawmaker, who recently won a fourth term in convincing fashion, spoke after Congress' initial measures to extend help to General Motors, Ford and Chrysler fizzled before the Thanksgiving break.
The negotiations are expected to resume next week, when the automakers present a plan demonstrating how they would spend federal money.
Brown-Waite's open mind reflects how the auto industry hits closer to home than the collapse of major Wall Street firms.
Interstate 75 cuts through the gut of Michigan and funnels Northern retirees directly to her district, spanning eight west-central Florida counties.
In Hernando County, it's hard to throw a rock and not hit a retired autoworker from Michigan, Ohio or Indiana.
"Many people, particularly those who are retirees or whose kids are still working there — not just in Detroit but lots of the subsidiary companies that make parts and components — they want to make sure the industry remains a U.S. industry," Brown-Waite said.
These retirees and their spouses retain strong ties to former employers in the form of pensions and health insurance.
If the auto companies go bankrupt, those benefits could be in jeopardy.
The congresswoman acknowledged that this factors greatly into her thinking about the bill.
"One of the things we ought to be sure of is that pensions that have been given to retirees are protected," she said.
The federal government insures traditional pensions through the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, but it is limited. The corporation is also currently in a deficit.
As Brown-Waite awaits the automakers' plan, she is looking for some specific provisions in order to earn her support.
She wants to see new leadership, the elimination of executive perks and new union contracts.
What she doesn't want is another AIG, the insurance giant that received federal bailout money but then held a conference at a posh resort.
"If they continue to say we are not stepping down, we are not getting rid of corporate jets, we are not going to renegotiate any of these union contracts, then that's kind of a 'Give us what we want, but we are not giving anything to you,' " she said.
"That's not negotiation. That's dictation.
John Frank can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 754-6114.