Failed auto talks raise freshman senator's status

Business Materials 13 December 2008 05:19 (UTC +04:00)

When the auto bailout talks collapsed, Sen. Bob Corker won by losing.

The freshman Republican from Tennessee represented conservative Republicans who opposed the $14 billion rescue package passed by the House and saw Senate negotiations as one last chance to bludgeon organized labor before the GOP minority shrinks and Democrats expand their control of government, AP reported.

Corker late Thursday pushed the United Auto Workers toward a firm date in 2009 by which wages and benefits would be reduced to match those of foreign manufacturers - a demand that by all accounts was the deal-killer.

That may not have been an accident, according to the key Democrat in the room. Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd had high praise for Corker, but suggested that the freshman senator may have been used by more-senior Republicans with little to gain from a deal with UAW.

"If perfection was supposed to be his goal, he was sent on a mission he could never complete," Dodd said of Corker.

Labor balked, talks abruptly ended and to no one's surprise, Republicans swiftly helped sink the House-passed rescue package.

By the time the sun rose on Friday, the 110th Congress had left town - possibly for good - and President George W. Bush was ready to find another way using the Treasury, the Federal Reserve or both to get billions of dollars in loans to the auto companies.

During the two-year session, the first in a dozen years that Democrats controlled the House and the Senate, the ruling majority failed to make good on a raft of promises because of opposition from Bush.

But on the rescue package this week, Bush was with them - if only because he was unwilling to let the industry, and the 3 million jobs that depend on it, perish on his watch.

What Democrats didn't have was support from conservative Republicans with little to lose from making a target of organized labor and bucking their own lame duck president.

The sticking point, all sides agreed, was Republicans' demand for a specific date, and labor's refusal to give one, by which cuts would be made to bring unionized workers' pay into line with that at nonunion U.S. plants of Japanese carmakers.

"It became really an impossible condition to meet, both politically and economically," Dodd, D-Conn., told reporters Friday. Dodd said that if he had agreed and presented such a deal to his Democratic colleagues, "there would have been a riot."

Whether used by senior colleagues or not, Corker raised his profile and won the respect of Republicans and the trust of some Democrats - particularly Dodd, the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. Corker only joined the committee in January, but Dodd's respect will give him more than a normal freshman senator's clout as the auto industry's fate and the economy consume the opening months of the 111th Congress and President-elect Barack Obama's administration.

Even with an expanded majority and control of the White House, Democrats still will need Republicans to reach the 60 votes needed to block filibusters. That and his new visibility could make Corker a bigger-than-average fish in the shrinking Republican caucus.

The multimillionaire freshman senator - whose state is home to General Motors, Nissan and soon Volkswagen plants - said he carried only goodwill into the talks and felt disappointed that they collapsed "three words away" from a deal.

"You can't believe how close we were," said Corker, 56. "It's pretty surreal to me that we haven't reached an agreement."

He said he was seeking a deal that would effectively allow automakers to go into bankruptcy without using that term or acquiring its stigma. And he accused the White House of undercutting his negotiating power by making clear that, if the talks failed, Bush and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson would consider throwing the companies a financial lifeline from the $700 billion financial bailout passed earlier.

Earlier, Bush had declared that money off-limits to the automakers, which initially strengthened Corker's hand.

UAW President Ron Gettelfinger, however, saw little reason to negotiate further with White House money on the way, Corker said.

"I think it being known that the White House at the end of the day would probably blink probably helped keep us from a deal," Corker told reporters.