Big Three Automakers Meet With Lawmakers on Capitol Hill

Lawmakers who met with the leaders of the Big Three U.S. automakers on Thursday pledged to work with them to help the industry compete against foreign carmakers.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the Congress members and auto executives were confident they could work together to "bring back the American automobile industry where we think it should be and they think it should be."

"We recognize that there are problems and we are going to work as partners with them," Reid said. "Perhaps in the last many years we have not worked together as well as we should have."

General Motors Corp. Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner, Ford Motor Co. Chairman and Chief Executive Bill Ford, and Tom LaSorda, president and CEO of DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group, crisscrossed the corridors of Capitol Hill for a series of closed-door meetings with congressional leaders.

Reid said it was the first of many meetings to develop a better partnership between government and industry.

Sen. Carl Levin, a Democrat who represents thousands of auto workers in Michigan, said the nation needs to be aggressive "in giving them support to level the playing field."

Ron Bonjean, a spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., described his meeting with the automakers as a "positive and constructive dialogue" on ways to encourage alternative fuel vehicles and more availability of pumps serving ethanol blends. The automakers also expressed support for pension reform.

Auto industry officials had said the meetings would center on energy issues such as making ethanol fuels more widely available, the industry's challenges in meeting rising health care costs, trade issues and the need for more alternative fuel vehicles.

Ford, following a meeting with Senate Democrats, said it was a "great opportunity for the three of us to get together with the leadership and talk about the opportunities we have as a country and as an industry, particularly on fuels, and how we start to wean ourselves from dependence on foreign oil."

The Big Three executives arrived in vehicles powered by ethanol, decorated with images of corn stalks, to underscore their commitment to alternative fuels.

Domestic automakers have ramped up production of flexible fuel vehicles, capable of running on gasoline and fuel blends of up to 85 percent ethanol. But one of the obstacles is finding pumps that offer ethanol — industry officials estimate that about 685 of the 165,000 fueling stations across the country offer ethanol blends, less than 1 percent of the stations.

The auto executives plan to meet in June with President Bush.

With some consumers paying $3 and beyond for a gallon of gasoline, Bush has sought an increase in the availability of ethanol and alternative fuels, more research for hybrid vehicle batteries and elimination of the cap on tax credits for the purchase of hybrids.

The Bush administration has also asked Congress to give it the authority to change fuel economy rules for passenger cars, a move that could lead to higher gas mileage requirements. The meeting comes at a challenging time for the domestic automakers. GM and Ford are executing major restructuring plans that would cut a combined 60,000 jobs and close more than two dozen plants by 2012. GM, meanwhile, has stockpiled parts in case workers at auto supplier Delphi Corp. go on strike.

Supporters of the industry say it faces competitive disadvantages against foreign manufacturers on issues such as trade and health care.