Treasury bailout targeted for Big 3

Bush, in flip, eyes $700B bailout to rescue GM, Chrysler.

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By Chris Isidore, CNNMoney.com senior writer

What impact would a General Motors bankruptcy have on the nation?
  • It would devastate the economy
  • It would be difficult, but a recovery would come
  • It would have no impact
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Auto workers by state
More than 2 million workers in every state - including Alaska and Hawaii - draw their pay from the auto industry. »»

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The Bush administration said Friday it might use taxpayer dollars set aside to bail out banks and Wall Street firms to keep troubled U.S. automakers out of bankruptcy, but a formal announcement is not expected this weekend.

A senior Bush administration official told CNN there will be "no news" Sunday on a bailout and that it would "be inappropriate to signal" when such an announcement might come.

"If there's something to announce, we'll announce it. We're not going to talk about if we'll do something, what it's going to be or when it's going to come," the official said.

White House spokesperson Tony Fratto added that the administration will "be focused on trying to get the policy right while considering the best interests of the taxpayer and our economy, and we'll take the time we have available to do that right."

However, the administration's apparent willingness to use money from the bank bailout fund reverses its previous position on how to help the auto industry, and effectively revives a bailout proposal killed by senators of the president's own party late Thursday night.

That plan had the support of congressional Democrats and the White House, but would have used a different source of funds to provide $14 billion in federal loans.

A move to loan money to the industry could provide an 11th-hour short-term lifeline to General Motors (GM, Fortune 500) and Chrysler LLC, which have warned they are within weeks of running out of the cash they need to continue to operate.

The defeat of the $14 billion bailout plan in the Senate left the administration little choice but to tap the $700 billion bailout approved by Congress in October, the Troubled Asset Relief Program or TARP.

"Given the current weakened state of the U.S. economy, we will consider other options if necessary -- including use of the TARP program -- to prevent a collapse of troubled automakers," White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said in a statement. "A precipitous collapse of this industry would have a severe impact on our economy."

Talking to reporters after the release of the statement, Perino said that President Bush had met with aides Friday morning to discuss options.

Details of when the help might be provided out of TARP, how much money would be made available, and any restrictions on the cash were not immediately available.

The Treasury Department, which controls the TARP fund, also said it was looking at using the remaining money as stopgap help for the automakers.

"Because Congress failed to act, we will stand ready to prevent an imminent failure until Congress reconvenes and acts to address the long-term viability of the industry," Treasury said in a statement.

House and Senate 2 different stories

The administration and congressional Democrats reached an agreement earlier this week on a $14 billion auto bailout to be funded with money set aside by Congress to help automakers shift production to more fuel efficient cars.

While Democrats had enough votes to get the loan package passed by the House on Wednesday, strong opposition from the Republican minority kept it from winning the 60 votes it needed to bring the matter up for a vote in the Senate.

After the vote Thursday night, several Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, urged Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to release the funds he controls as early as Friday.

The legislation would have placed a number of conditions on the loan. It would have established a so-called car czar to oversee automakers' efforts trying to win concessions from creditors and unions. It also would have allowed the government to call the loans if the companies failed to make progress.

General Motors said that it is encouraged by the administration's statements.

"We are prepared to work closely with the administration on possible solutions that could prevent further damage to our nation's economy and also allow us to embark on an aggressive restructuring plan for long term viability," GM said in a statement.

GM warns it needs $4 billion by the end of December and an additional $6 billion in the first two months of 2009. Chrysler said it needs $4 billion early next year.

Chrysler did not have an immediate comment, but at a press conference Friday morning, United Auto Workers union President Ron Gettelfinger, a strong advocate of a bailout, said the union appreciated the administration's statements.

Ford Motor (F, Fortune 500) has more cash on hand despite ongoing losses there as well. So it is not expected to tap into funds in the near term. But it has said it might need money later in 2009 if auto sales do not improve.

Stopgap measures

In total, the three automakers have asked Congress for up to $34 billion in loans to get them through to 2010.

The $14 billion loan package voted on this week was seen as a stopgap measure to keep GM and Chrysler out of bankruptcy through the end of March.

That short-term solution was seen as a way for the new Congress and the incoming Obama administration to craft a more permanent solution to help the industry weather the current downturn in auto sales.

While the three major U.S. automakers have all been losing money and market share for years, the current cash crisis was sparked by a plunge in auto sales this fall in the wake of the crisis in the nation's credit and financial markets.

The TARP money might end up being an even shorter-term solution, perhaps just until shortly after the new Congress takes office Jan. 6.

One possible scenario: President Bush could loan money through early January, leaving it to the new Congress to try again to approve loans for the industry before the Jan. 20 inauguration of President-elect Obama.

The new Senate, which will be sworn in Jan. 6, will have at least seven additional Democrats, perhaps as many as nine, who are not now in office.

If any TARP loan program expires before Jan. 20, the need for Bush's signature for any new bailout plan would give Republicans a voice they would lose in the more Democratic new Congress.

In a statement Friday, President-elect Obama said he is hopeful the administration and Congress can find a solution to get the auto industry the short-term help it needs.

"The revival of our economy as a whole should not be a partisan issue. So I commend those in Congress as well as the administration who tried valiantly to forge a compromise," Obama said.

Other than the political considerations, there are other problems with using TARP to help the auto industry now. While Congress approved $700 billion in October, only half of that money was immediately available without an additional authorization from Congress. And of that first $350 billion, only $15 billion of TARP funds remain unallocated to the nation's banks.

Republican critics of a bailout have argued that the automakers should use bankruptcy to shed debt and onerous labor obligations. They point to the success of companies in other troubled industries, such as airlines and steelmaking, to use bankruptcy to reorganize.

The automakers argued that bankruptcy is not an option. They say consumers will not buy cars from a bankrupt automaker, and they point out they would have trouble getting funding during bankruptcy.

On top of that, bankruptcy could pose risks to the financial system.

The automakers have issued more than $70 billion in bonds that might default if they go out of business.

In addition, many major financial firms have written large numbers of financial instruments known as credit default swaps on that debt. The firms could have to pay hundreds of billions of dollars to parties that bought the swaps as a bet that the automakers may not be able to pay those debts.

Fears that problems in the CDS market would cause problems in broader credit and financial markets is one of the reasons the Federal Reserve has loaned American International Group more than $100 billion.

CNN's Kate Bolduan and Kathleen Koch and contributed to this report. To top of page

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