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Reporter's Notebook: Capitol Hill Car Show

In fifth grade math class, I hated story problems.

So here's one that's baffling me now.

If one group of executives from struggling automobile companies fly from Detroit to Washington, D.C., on Learjets and two weeks later they leave the Motor City driving hybrid vehicles, which group gets a bailout from Congress first?

We might not know until, if and when Congress reconvenes next week.

But one thing is certain: The CEOs of the Big Three automakers made sure they arrived in Washington this time via a method championed by Henry Ford and not the Wright Brothers.

Thursday's roster of drivers and vehicles read like something in the program for the Indianapolis 500.

Taking the pole position was Richard Wagoner of GM driving a Chevy Volt (160-horsepower). Wagoner was supposed to arrive at 9 a.m. But he showed up closer to 9:30, slowed apparently by the penalty laps assessed two weeks ago by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid after Wagoner and his colleagues failed to make a persuasive enough case to Congress last month.

Ford's Alan Mullaly was supposed to be in the second row and arriving in a Ford Escape Hybrid (155-horsepower). But Mullaly reportedly suffered engine trouble on the Ohio Turnpike and was passed by Chrysler's Bob Nardelli. He pulled up to Capitol Hill in an white, electric-powered Jeep (260-horsepower, 295 lb-ft of torque).

All that was missing were ads on the sides of the cars trumpeting Valvoline and Goodyear.

No triumvirate has garnered such rotten press in recent months as the automobile CEOs, after they flew to Washington on corporate jets while their companies struggle. So the execs desperately wanted to show off their new products and innovation, converting their appearances on Capitol Hill into a car show.

Everything was staged for the cameras.

A scrum of reporters, photographers and videographers clustered at the corner of Delaware Avenue, NE and C St. NE in Washington at one side of the Russell Senate Office Building.

On the Constitution Avenue side of Russell, Sen. Carl Levin and his brother, Rep. Sander Levin, both Michigan Democrats, and Debbie Dingell (wife of Democratic Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, a longtime General Motors lobbyist) waited for Wagoner to pull up in the Chevy Volt (its doors emblazoned with the slogan "Technology Inside"). Once Wagoner and Team GM arrived, the Levin Boys piled into the car to stage a rolling photo op. Wagoner then drove them in the Volt around the corner to the waiting throng of journalists.

But Wagoner's effort at stagecraft failed.

Like an inexperienced driver on the NASCAR circuit, Wagoner overshot pit row and drove just out of the range of many of the cameras. That ruined the "money shot" his PR wizards sought to create after the jet fiasco: GM's CEO stepping out of a hybrid vehicle with the Michigan senators, ready to testify.

Wagoner did everything but run over the gas hose on this pit stop.

Reporters and photographers jockeyed for position, vying to get a shot of the Volt.

"Get down! Get down!" photographers shouted from the back.

"Let him through!" yelled a plainclothes Capitol Hill police officer.

"We're sorry to be asking for this support," Wagoner told the throng.

Then came Chrysler.

Like a covey of quail flushed by a shotgun blast, the journalist wall sprinted up the street to catch the arrival of CEO Bob Nardelli in a Jeep EV. One network photographer would have wound up on the hood had Nardelli's driver not slammed on the brakes. Someone lost a cell phone and it went tumbling onto the concrete. It was kicked, and it skipped up the block another 20 feet. One videographer described the scene as "Lewinskyesque," a reference to the media's pursuits of President Clinton's paramour a decade ago.

Not to be outdone by GM, Chrysler brought along a fleet that could fill an entire showroom. Additional Chrysler officials wheeled up five other vehicles of all makes and models, including a yellow Viper sports car and a Sebring. The parade of cars could have rivaled Carl Casper’s Cavalcade of Customs. All that was missing was the General Lee from the Dukes of Hazard, KITT from Knight Rider and the Batmobile. I waited for Adam West to show up to sign autographs.

And then a Capitol Police cruiser pulled up escorting Mulally, who had to run the gauntlet when he arrived.

So after the car expo ended, Congress again turned to wrestling with what to do to help Detroit.

There just doesn't seem to be the support for a rescue bill from Capitol Hill. And congressional leaders are loathe to call up a package that doesn't have the support and watch it tank like the first failed financial emergency legislation vote in early September.

"What kind of a message do we send to the American people by having a bunch of failed votes here," Senate Majority Leader Reid declared last month.

The problem is this: Two months ago, Congress brought a measure to the House floor that lacked the votes. And as the vote failed, the Dow nose-dived, a real-time measuring tool reflecting the economic consequences of that particular outcome.

The Congressional brass learned its lesson the first time. It won't play with fire on an auto bailout until it has the votes.

And until then, all the new models pulling up in front of the House and Senate office buildings seem like just a car show.

Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He's won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.