Senate Democrats and the White House scrambled Wednesday evening to resuscitate a dying auto industry bailout bill, as Senate Republicans appeared unwilling and unable to provide the support necessary to beat back an expected filibuster.
The situation had a familiar ring given that most sessions of Congress typically end with an apparent collapse of the process before giving way to a breakthrough that allows Members to go home for the holidays. Still, supporters of the bailout faced a heavy lift in convincing as many as 14 to 18 Republicans to vote for the bill after their leaders repeatedly declined invitations to participate in negotiations with Democrats and the White House.
With the House passing a bill 237-170-1 tonight, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) planned to make a last-ditch attempt to complete work on the measure this week. He was expected to offer Republicans a series of votes Thursday in an attempt to assuage their concerns that the bill does not go far enough to ensure that carmakers have a plan to return to viability if given $14 billion in loans from the federal government.
Despite all of the criticisms that are being raised, we do think theres a decent chance we can line up a couple of votes [Thursday] and possibly have final passage, one Senate Democratic leadership aide said. The aide would not say whether Democrats would be willing to further alter the bill to meet GOP demands.
As of Wednesday evening, it was yet unclear if allowing Republicans votes on amendments would be enough to cause a handful of GOP Senators to back down from their threats to slow-walk the bill.
Democrats were hopeful that the pressure to leave town for the holidays would help Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to convince his GOP colleagues to stand down in exchange for setting up an artificial 60-vote threshold on the measure. But it was unclear if McConnell was even planning to make such a pitch.
Still, Reid moved Wednesday to set up a test vote on the bill for Friday. Senate Democratic aides said that if they could not complete work on the plan Thursday, Reid might have to follow through on his threat to work through the weekend, and that votes on Monday would become a real possibility. Senate Republicans are key to passage of any bailout bill, given that overcoming a filibuster requires 60 votes.
Reid is currently operating with a narrow 51-49 majority, and not all Democratic Senators are expected to be in town for votes this week or next. Additionally, President-elect Barack Obamas seat remains vacant.
But GOP Senators said they were reluctant to support the measure, which was hammered out between Congressional Democrats and the Bush White House in recent days. White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and Vice President Dick Cheney attended the Republicans weekly luncheon to urge passage of the measure, but Senators said that those pleas fell on deaf ears.
I think they had less support when they left than when they came in, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said. He described the bill as the product from an administration that wants to kick the can down the road and let somebody else deal with it. And, I think it has minimal to very little support in our caucus.
Corker said he is devising an alternative measure that would require more concessions from both the car companies and the autoworkers unions. Many Republicans have advocated from the beginning that troubled carmakers, such as General Motors and Chrysler, should file for bankruptcy protection. And most of the GOP suggestions for changes to the bill involved giving the car czar who would oversee the companies restructuring powers similar to a bankruptcy judge.
Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), who has GM plants in his state and is one of the few Republicans to support the measure, was visibly angry with the reluctance of his colleagues to save the auto industry.
He said Republicans had a chance over the past few weeks to air their concerns, but declined invitations from Democrats and the White House to participate in talks. The White House gave us a real shot to participate and the leadership claimed we didnt want to participate ... because they felt that whatever came out of the negotiations they probably couldnt support, Voinovich said.
One senior Senate Republican aide said McConnell acknowledged during the lunch his decision to reject the invitations to participate. Voinovich said some GOP votes might be swayed with changes to the car czar language, but complained, Some of them, frankly, dont want to do anything.
One Senate GOP aide said supporters of the bailout were trying to win over Republican Senators who either are retiring at the end of this Congress or who lost their re-election bids this year.
Meanwhile, House Democrats voted on their package and then planned to adjourn.
Were going first and were leaving town, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said. Were playing the Senate game on this.
However, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said the House could return to deal with potential Senate amendments to the plan and would not adjourn sine die. Even if the Senate passes a bill, the House will likely have to come back to vote again because Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Chairman Chris Dodds (D-Conn.) bill is slightly different from the House measure. Dodd made several tweaks that the White House asked for. However, both bills would empower a car czar, appointed by the president, to oversee any major actions by the automakers and force changes. The position would have effective veto authority over any expenditure of $100 million or more a provision Democrats insisted on to help prevent bailout money from being used to subsidize the shipping of jobs overseas. The government also would get warrants for a 20 percent equity stake in the companies in addition to preferred stock paying a 5 percent dividend.
Democrats gave up efforts to prohibit the companies from continuing to sue states over emissions standards after the White House objected, and the companies won an antitrust exemption so they could coordinate their restructuring efforts.
House Republicans also fought the bailout, offering an alternative that they said would prevent bureaucrats from running private industry while still forcing sacrifices on the part of bondholders and the United Auto Workers union.
We dont need any more bailouts, we need accountability, incoming House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said. The federal governments role should be as a backstop, not as a player, he said, rejecting the idea of a powerful new car czar who could order a restructuring.