For the first time in their century of existence, Detroit's automakers and their union joined together to plead to Congress for help to survive an economic crisis. Congress made a request in return: Prove you're worth risking $25 billion in federal money.
"You're asking an awful lot, and I suspect …this $25 (billion) is not the end of it. I would like to tell you that this is going to happen in the next couple of days. I don't think it is," said Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., who chaired the Senate committee hearing on a bill to help the automakers.
The chiefs of General Motors gm, Ford Motor f, Chrysler and the UAW mounted their most public appeal for aid since the industry plunged into crisis just over a month ago. They emphasized the cuts they've made, plans for future models and the sacrifices great and small designed to keep their doors open.
"Our industry, which represents America's real economy, needs a bridge to span the financial chasm that has opened before us," said GM Chairman Rick Wagoner during the Senate committee hearing Tuesday.
Chrysler Chairman Robert Nardelli warned that his company is in danger of running short of cash before the end of the year, and that it had considered some forms of bankruptcy before deciding they were unworkable and the only option was government help.
"We are in a very fragile position," Nardelli said.
All four executives warned of grave damage to the entire U.S. economy and to one another should one of Detroit's titans tumble into bankruptcy. They said a court reorganization would shatter consumer confidence and cost the government more than $25 billion in lost taxes, while triggering a domino effect throughout the auto industry.
"If any of these companies would go into bankruptcy, I would bet it would take another one with them or possibly all three," said UAW President Ron Gettelfinger.
But as much as the automakers talked about their plans, lawmakers questioned their past mistakes and political stances, doubting the industry is ready to make enough tough cuts to keep the automakers from coming back for more help.
"Are we here in the Senate being asked to facilitate a stronger, more competitive auto manufacturing sector, or to perpetuate a market failure?" asked Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala.
The antipathy toward automakers came from both parties. Dodd said the automakers had been "famously devoid of vision," adding that the executives deserved no more sympathy than the bankers responsible for spawning the crisis in subprime home mortgages.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. and a supporter of the proposal, said it was critical that the auto executives detail their plan.
"We need them to reassure us they won't come back again in six months in the same sinking boat asking us for $50 billion to fix more holes," he said.
As worthy as the banks, though
Several senators said if the financial industry was too important to fail, so were U.S. automakers.
"If it makes sense to give one bank $25 billion, then we can certainly invest the same amount to save the entire domestic auto industry," said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.
The automakers have said they need "immediate" aid, with GM potentially running short of cash as soon as January without government help. The three contend a collapse could pull hundreds of suppliers and dealers into bankruptcy and jeopardize up to 3 million jobs.