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Auto Deal Falls Apart

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The 110th Congress ended last night not with a bang, but with deadlock. Hours of negotiations failed to produce a bailout plan for General Motors and Chrysler. White House officials now say they'll consider using money from the TARP, the multibillion dollar fund that was intended for financial companies. Today, as NPR's David Welna reports, two senators who tried to forge the deal - one, a Republican, the other, a Democrat - offered different versions of what went wrong.

DAVID WELNA: In the Senate saga of the failed auto firm bailout, there's one senator who stands out as a driven deal maker.

Senator BOB CORKER (Republican, Tennessee): It's almost surreal to me today that we didn't reach an agreement.

WELNA: That's Bob Corker, the freshman Tennessee Republican who came up with his own plan to save the car companies from doom. Corker convinced Senate Democrats that the plan they worked out with the House White would not win the support it needed from Republicans. So last night, he found himself negotiating in an ornate Senate room with United Auto Workers representatives and two Democratic colleagues. His proposal simply put was that auto companies should get rid of two-thirds of their debt by March and unionized auto workers should agree to wages and benefits comparable to U.S. employees of Toyota, Honda and Nissan.

Sen. CORKER: I basically pleaded with them to give me something - give me some kind of language where we would know that at some point, date certain. They were, quote, "competitive, not parody, competitive with these other companies."

WELNA: But Corker says the UAW representatives would only agree to a plan to become competitive, not a date certain.

Sen. CORKER: Had we agreed on a date, any date that's reasonable? I think last night, it would have passed the Senate by 90 votes. I really believe that.

Senator CHRISTOPHER DODD (Democrat, Connecticut; Chairman, Senate Banking Committee): Well, I think there were a very strong minority in the Republican caucus that was determined that this blowup.

WELNA: That's Banking Committee chairman, Christopher Dodd. The Connecticut Democrat was the other lead negotiator trying to get a deal last night. He says Republicans who rejected the deal in fact, favored forcing the car companies into bankruptcy. For Dodd it wasn't just that these Republicans wanted a car czar forcing workers to take a wage cut.

Sen. DODD: But they were insisting that they agreed to it on a certain date knowing that that might be impossible. Thus, the czar would have to say the restructuring plan doesn't work. Thus, bankruptcy gets involved. So, this was the bankruptcy crowd. And they couldn't achieve it, so they tried one way, so they tried to achieve it the other.

WELNA: Dodd says Corker was given an impossible task by Republicans who asked him to craft a deal that could pass the Senate.

Sen. DODD: I just regret that the leadership having sent him on this mission was not willing to respect him when he came back, outlining what he thought were the parameters of something to get us a deal. And if perfection was supposed to be his goal, he was sent on a mission he could never complete.

WELNA: Still, both Corker and Dodd came away from the auto bailout ordeal with some new friends. Corker says he talked earlier today with UAW chief Ron Gettelfinger, who seems not to be counting on Congress anymore to help his industry.

Sen. CORKER: He believes he's gotten indications from the White House that TARP money is coming, and I think he believes that at this point, there's really no reason to carry the conversations any further. So I - he has of course, my number. I have his cell phone number.

WELNA: And Banking Chairman Dodd, has through days of talks, found new allies at - of all places - the White House.

Sen. DODD: Most of you know that I'm not at a habit of standing at a podium here and being complimentary about this White House. But I want to tell you, over the last 10 days, they were terrific. They brought very good people to the table. They negotiated in great good faith, in my view, had good ideas, became very knowledgeable, made very good suggestions.

WELNA: Dodd also said he trusts the White House will do now what he's long been urging it to do - tap the financial bailout funds to help the auto industry.

Sen. DODD: I'm very confident as I stand here before you this afternoon that the White House will not allow this industry to collapse.

WELNA: Dodd says he hopes a White House rescue of the auto industry could keep it going until March or at least until next month when a new Congress filled with many more Democrats is sworn in. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.