White House, lawmakers say auto deal is imminent

The developing measure would create a presidentially named overseer charged with running a broad auto industry restructuring.

The White House and a top Democratic lawmaker said Monday it was likely they would reach agreement to help failing US automakers, as congressional drafters put the finishing touches on a bill that could see votes as early as Tuesday. "It sounds like we have agreement on those basic principles that would be required for a bill that the president could sign," White House press secretary Dana Perino told reporters. Asked if the deal could happen as early as Monday, Perino said, "I think it's very likely." She prodded senior Democratic lawmakers to send their proposal, particularly if they expected initial votes within 24 hours. Democratic Rep. Barney Frank, the Financial Services Committee chairman, said he, too, expected a deal by the end of the day on a proposal that would draw emergency aid from an existing loan program meant to help the automakers build fuel-efficient vehicles. House and Senate Democratic aides were finalizing the package, which is expected to provide between $14 billion and $17b. Frank said he expected the bailout would clear Congress and be signed by President George W. Bush "before the week [is] out." The developing measure would create a presidentially named overseer charged with running a broad auto industry restructuring, with the power to require immediate payback of the emergency loans early next year if the companies fail to take the steps necessary to overhaul themselves. It could also include a cabinet-level oversight board composed of the heads of the departments of Treasury, Energy, Labor, Commerce and Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency. Under the plan, the carmakers could get emergency loans on December 15. Then the presidentially tapped overseer - a kind of "car czar" - would write guidelines, due on the first of the year, for a Big Three restructuring. If the car companies hadn't taken enough steps to overhaul themselves by February 15, 2009, the czar could recall the money. That would essentially mean that a person selected by Bush would set the terms for an auto industry restructuring, but someone picked by President-elect Barack Obama would have the power to decide whether they were being met. The White House is pushing for a single adviser to be empowered to revoke the loans and send the companies into bankruptcy if they don't make progress on fundamental shifts in their business. Perino didn't rule out that the White House could support a board instead of a single person. The White House's main concern is that it wants to scrub the fine print of any legislative language to make sure the final deal does not weaken its main principle for a bailout: that the automakers show a detailed plan for how they will be viable in the long term. The Bush administration says it won't support emergency help for car companies from taxpayers without such a plan.