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WASHINGTON (CNN) — The House of Representatives handily passed a bill Wednesday night that would provide up to $14 billion in bridge loans to automakers, but Republican opposition cast doubt about the bill’s fate in the Senate later this week.
The U.S. House approved an auto bailout package Wednesday, but it could hit a roadblock in the Senate.
The stopgap measure, approved by a vote of 237 to 170, is designed to let the new Congress and incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama craft a long-term solution. It would also give the companies time to negotiate with creditors and the United Auto Workers union on additional concessions needed to stem their ongoing losses.
Thirty-two GOP representatives voted with 205 Democrats in support of the bill while 20 Democrats and 150 Republicans opposed the bill.
In Michigan, the home of the three major U.S. automakers — Chrysler, Ford and General Motors — eight Republicans joined the six Democrats in the state’s delegation in voting for the measure. A ninth Michigan Republican, Timothy Walberg, did not vote.
Seven other Republicans that voted for the bill are from nearby Midwestern states that are also home to auto plants. However, outside of the auto belt, the bailout had little Republican support.
Even Democrats couldn’t come to complete agreement on the bill, with House and Senate Democrats going their separate ways on one of the criteria the “car czar” must consider in determining an auto company’s long-term viability plan.
House Democrats used language requiring that autos meet stricter “applicable” fuel efficiency and emissions standards — which would cover consideration of state standards such as those adopted in California and New York — while the Senate version of the bill calls for vehicles to meet “federal” standards, which are not as high as some state benchmarks.
A Senate Democratic leadership aide told CNN that Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell told Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid Wednesday morning that the bill would never pass the Senate with the House language.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wanted the higher efficiency standard so that liberal Democrats who are not inclined to help the auto manufacturers would feel they had assurances that these companies would adopt and make more fuel-efficient cars, according to House Democratic aides.
However, even if language about the fuel efficiency standards is resolved, Senate Republicans still aren’t likely to flock behind the bill.
“I don’t think the votes are there on our side of the aisle,” reported Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio, one of few vocal Republican backers of the bill.
“It’s not gonna pass right now,” echoed Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, a fierce critic of the bill.
Voinovich and Shelby spoke after Senate Republicans huddled behind closed doors in the Capitol on Wednesday to weigh the merits of the bailout. Vice President Dick Cheney and White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten attended the meeting — called “spirited” by one senator — to sell the bill the White House negotiated with congressional Democrats.
Several senators said they were concerned the so-called “car czar,” created by the legislation, would not have enough power to force the troubled automakers to restructure to become profitable.
“I have concerns about the power of the czar,” said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minnesota, a moderate who Democrats have hoped would vote for the bill, “that he actually has some real power. And I think that’s a concern a lot of my colleagues have right now.”
“The car czar needs the authority to create a de facto structured bankruptcy. Not consulting. Not calling meetings. He needs the capacity of a master of bankruptcy to force things to happen,” said Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah.
Some senators oppose any assistance to the automakers, saying they should file for bankruptcy, but White House spokeswoman Dana Perino pointed out that many lawmakers from both sides of the aisle believe that allowing “a disorderly bankruptcy could be fatal to U.S. automakers and have devastating impacts on jobs, families and our economy.”
“As a result, they also agree we should find a way to foster the companies’ restructuring so that they can become viable and profitable,” she said. “We believe the legislation developed in recent days is an effective and responsible approach to deal with troubled automakers and ensure the necessary restructuring occurs.”
Other senators said they were concerned that the carmakers might never pay taxpayers back for the loans, meant to keep General Motors and Chrysler afloat until they can finalize a long-term viability plan — by March 31, according to the legislation.
GM has said it needs $4 billion by the end of the month to continue operations, and believes it’ll need an additional $6 billion in the first three months of 2009. Chrysler has said it needs $4 billion by the end of the first quarter.
Ford, which has more cash on hand than its U.S. rivals, is not expected to tap into this bailout in the coming months.
On the eve of the penultimate presidential debate, a new TIME/CNN poll shows John McCain still struggling in states won by George W. Bush in 2004, a sign that last week’s vice presidential debate had little effect on voter opinion.
In North Carolina, which Bush won by more than 12 percentage points in both 2000 and 2004, McCain and Obama are locked in a dead heat, with each candidate garnering the support of 49% of likely voters. In Indiana, which Bush won by 21 points in 2004 and 16 points in 2000, McCain maintains a slight 5 point lead over Obama, with 51% of likely voters, compared to Obama’s 46%.
In the crucial swing state of Ohio, which Bush won by slight margins in both 2000 and 2004, McCain trails Obama by 3 points, with the support of 47% of voters, compared to Obama’s 50%. Obama also holds a statistically significant 8 point lead over McCain in New Hampshire and a 5 point lead in Wisconsin, two states that Democrat John Kerry was able to win in 2004.
As a result of the new survey, CNN now considers New Hampshire and Wisconsin to be Obama-leaning states, after previously being considered tossups. North Carolina is now considered a tossup, after previously being categorized as a McCain-leaning state.
The polls were conducted between October 3 and 6, after last Thursday’s debate. They have a margin of error of +/- 3.5 to 4 percentage points.
Last week, the McCain campaign reacted to a polling downturn by shuttering its operation in the state of Michigan and redistributing staff to Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Maine, where electoral votes are distributed by congressional district. In a conference call last week, Mike DuHaime, the McCain campaign’s political director, acknowledged that the national mood and Obama’s deep pockets had put previously solid Republican states like Indiana in play.
“I do think just the overall environment right now that we face is one of the worst environments for any Republican in probably 35 years,” DuHaime said. “Any time you have that, you have states move within that margin.”
After two grueling years, only two major events remain in the 2008 presidential campaign, a candidate town hall forum Tuesday in Tennessee, and a debate on October 15 in New York. In a nod to the dwindling window of opportunity, McCain again sharpened his attacks on Obama during a stump speech Monday in New Mexico, charging that Obama harbors a “back story” on every issue that needs to be explored.
“All people want to know is: What has this man ever actually accomplished in government? What does he plan for America?” McCain said. “In short: Who is the real Barack Obama? But ask such questions and all you get in response is another barrage of angry insults.”
Campaigning in North Carolina, Obama countered by charging that McCain and his aides were “gambling that they can distract you with smears rather than talk to you about substance.”
John McCain is pulling out of Michigan, according to two Republicans, a stunning move a month away from Election Day that indicates the difficulty Republicans are having in finding blue states to put in play.
McCain will go off TV in Michigan, stop dropping mail there and send most of his staff to more competitive states, including Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida. Wisconsin went for Kerry in 2004, Ohio and Florida for Bush.
McCain’s campaign didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Republicans had been bullish on Michigan, hopeful that McCain’s past success in the state in the 2000 primary combined with voter dissatisfaction with Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm and skepticism among blue-collar voters about Barack Obama could make it competitive.
McCain and his running mate Sarah Palin spent the night after the GOP convention at a large rally in Macomb County, just outside Detroit. The two returned later last month for another sizable event in Grand Rapids.
But recent polls there have shown Obama extending what had been a small lead, with the economic crisis damaging an already sagging GOP brand in a state whose economy is in tatters.
A McCain event planned for next week in Plymouth, Michiigan, has been canceled.