House Bill Would Force GM, Chrysler to Reopen Dealers

A House panel Tuesday night voted to require General Motors and Chrysler to restore franchise agreements with their dealers despite their dire financial condition.

The Appropriations Committee approved by voice vote a plan by Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio, to effectively force the two automakers to restore their prior franchise agreements with dealers as a condition of being partially owned by the U.S. government as they work their way through bankruptcy proceedings. The move came as the panel approved a spending bill to fund the Treasury Department and White House operations, among other programs.

Both General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC cut loose numerous dealers in cost-cutting moves, and many lawmakers are sympathetic since dealers are often leaders of local business communities. Many dealers have made recent investments only to be axed by the companies.

LaTourette said the companies were running roughshod over dealers and are skirting state franchise laws. Democratic Appropriations Chairman David Obey pressed for LaTourette's amendment, citing "legitimate concerns from a doggone good" car dealer in his northwestern Wisconsin district.

The plan faces uncertain prospects but reflects widespread sympathy for dealers among lawmakers in both parties.

The House panel vote came amid a welter of activity on Capitol Hill on the annual appropriations bills, including the commencement of Senate debate on a $42.9 billion Senate measure funding homeland security programs.

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Four bills were adopted by the House and Senate Appropriations committees Tuesday in sessions that highlighted the generosity of Democrats controlling Congress toward the annual operating budgets of domestic Cabinet agencies. Democrats are on course to provide non-defense programs funded by Congress each year increases averaging 12 percent — well below the increases permitted under President George W. Bush.

The homeland security bill pending in the Senate would provide somewhat less generous increases averaging 7 percent to the myriad agencies in the sprawling Homeland Security Department. The measure includes big increases for explosives detection systems at U.S. airports, continues to pour money into enforcement efforts along the U.S.-Mexico border and provides $4.2 billion in grants to state and local governments for various security programs.

By a 51-47 vote, the Senate rejected a move by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to eliminate $6 million for GPS-type tracking systems for buses. President Barack Obama in May had recommended the cut as part of a plan to save $17 billion by reducing or killing 121 programs. A dozen Democrats voted with McCain, however.

Two of the spending bills received unanimous approval Tuesday afternoon in the Senate Appropriations Committee: measures funding veterans programs and military construction projects, and the $23.1 billion budget for the Agriculture Department.

The House Appropriations Committee, meanwhile, worked into the night on two bills funding energy and water projects, the Treasury Department and White House budgets, and the federal contribution to the District of Columbia.

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The latter measure has drawn criticism from Republicans unhappy that it would phase out a D.C. school voucher program popular with conservatives. It would provide enough money only to cover students already enrolled in the program. It also would permit the district to conduct a referendum to permit the use of marijuana for medical purposes.

The five House and Senate bills under consideration represent about $200 billion of the $1.2 trillion discretionary portion of the $3.6 trillion federal budget. The appropriations measures deal with the nuts and bolts of government, including food programs, flood protection projects and a Veterans Affairs program providing service dogs to soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Later will come a huge defense bill that would deliver a 4 percent budget increase to the Pentagon that would bring its operating budget above $530 billion. It will also include $130 billion more for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One of the House bills would reduce the budget for the government's anti-drug media campaign from $70 million to just $20 million, citing studies that question its effectiveness.

The Senate agriculture measure boosts funding for nutrition programs such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, which provides healthy food such as milk, cheese, eggs, fruit juice and cereal to low-income women and children. It would get a 10 percent budget increase, to $7.6 billion.

The bills also contains hundreds of so-called earmarks so treasured by lawmakers, including a new $14.4 million chapel center at Fort Campbell, Ky., and $500,000 sought by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., to combat the hemlock woolly adegid, an invasive species that threatens hemlocks in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Cherokee National Forest.

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