WASHINGTON – A Democratic Congress, unwilling or unable to approve a $25 billion bailout for Detroit's Big Three, appears ready to punt the automakers' fate to a lame-duck Republican president.
Caught in the middle of a who-blinks-first standoff are countless manufacturing firms and auto dealers — and millions of Americans' jobs.
For now, with the plan headed for a roadblock in the Senate, lawmakers in both parties are engaged in a high-stakes game of chicken, positioning to blame each other for the failure.
"The Congress need do nothing" during its postelection session this week, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the majority leader, said Wednesday, although he also said he still hoped lawmakers could strike an elusive deal to carve $25 billion in new auto industry loans out of the $700 billion Wall Street rescue fund.
But it's really up to President George W. Bush's team to act, he said.
"If we can't do it here legislatively, I would hope that the secretary of Treasury would listen loud and clear, because they could take this into their own hands and do what I think is appropriate," the Democratic leader said.
Not our responsibility, countered the White House.
"If Congress leaves for a two-month vacation without having addressed this important issue ... then the Congress will bear responsibility for anything that happens in the next couple of months during their long vacation," said Dana Perino, the White House press secretary.
She said there was "no appetite" in the administration for using the financial industry bailout money to help auto companies.
The White House and congressional Republicans instead called on Democrats to sign on to a GOP plan to divert a $25 billion loan program created by Congress in September — designed to help the companies develop more fuel-efficient vehicles — to meet the auto giants' immediate financial needs.
GOP Sens. Kit Bond of Missouri and George V. Voinovich of Ohio were at work on that measure Wednesday, toiling to placate skeptical Democrats by including a guarantee that the fuel-efficiency loan fund would ultimately be replenished.
"It is the only proposal now being considered that has a chance of actually becoming law," said Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
But there was little sign that Democratic leaders would go along. They are vehemently opposed to letting the car companies tap that money — set aside to help switch to vehicles that burn less gasoline — for short-term cash-flow needs.
All of which leaves the Big Three bracing for a bleak winter without government help. General Motors Corp. has said it could collapse within weeks, and there are indications that Chrysler LLC might not be far behind.
GM CEO Rick Wagoner told a House committee Wednesday that the downfall of his industry could lead to a loss of 3 million jobs within the first year and ripple through communities around the nation.
In sometimes contentious testimony, Wagoner was pressed on when GM would run out of money if the loans weren't extended.
He wouldn't say precisely, but disclosed that the company now was burning through "$5 billion each month."
Still, with the $25 billion emergency package, "we think we have a good shot to make it through this," Wagoner said.
Many lawmakers in both parties, however, are now openly discussing whether bankruptcy might be a better option for auto firms they regard as lumbering industrial dinosaurs that have done too little to adjust their products and work forces for the 21st century.
The carmakers argue that bankruptcy would devastate their companies, but proponents say it would give them a chance to reorganize and emerge stronger and more competitive.
It's unclear, though, whether Democrats controlling Congress are willing to risk being blamed for letting one of the Big Three — symbols of the nation's once-mighty manufacturing sector — go under.
Bailout-shy lawmakers got an earful from jittery constituents last month when the House let an early version of the Wall Street rescue fail, sending the Dow Jones industrials tumbling and erasing more than a trillion dollars in retirement savings and other investments. Congress took a deep breath and reconsidered, passing the plan a few days later.
Faced with a similar collapse in the auto industry, the Bush administration might yet decide to use its authority under the $700 billion financial industry bailout to help the auto companies, or the Federal Reserve could step in — though both have steadfastly refused to do so.
If not, lawmakers have left themselves a contingency plan: Come back to Washington in December for yet another postelection session where they might be able to strike the deal that now seems beyond reach.
Democratic leaders are planning to gather for an economic conference the week of Dec. 8, noted House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md.
"That is available," Hoyer said this week. "The year has not ended."