In a Web video released Monday, GM said the industry faces "imminent collapse," noting the Detroit automakers have 239,000 U.S. employees, 775,000 retirees and spouses and 2 million people covered by company-sponsored health care.
Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow told the hearing that Detroit had been on track to meet fuel economy goals and make itself competitive with foreign makes before the credit crisis hit, and that Michigan had lost 400,000 jobs to automaker restructuring so far.
"We can debate previous decisions, but we can all agree the global financial crisis was not caused by the American auto industry," Stabenow said.
"We need this industry as a basic part of the fabric of our economy. Somebody has to make something in America."
The public pitch may have come too late, as senators had several doubts as to whether the industry could survive even with government backing.
"We've gone to 10 million sales a year in this country. We may not need three automakers," said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.
In making their case, the companies had to answer questions they had avoided so far. From the $25 billion in government loans, Wagoner said GM was expecting to ask for $10 billion to $12 billion. Ford Chief Executive Alan Mulally and Nardelli said Ford and Chrysler would seek $7 billion each. The amounts are based on the company's market shares.
Nardelli released new data about Chrysler's performance, saying it consumed $3 billion of its cash in the third quarter and had $6.1 billion left. He said the company was ready to pay back a government loan, and that Chrysler's private owners would forgo profits if government aid spurred its revival.
"We wouldn't be here today asking for this if we didn't have a high confidence level that we could weather this economic trough," Nardelli said.
Mulally said Ford was making tough decisions and had prepared for the future, noting the company would begin converting the Michigan Truck Plant in Wayne on Friday from full-size sport-utility vehicles to small cars.
"This is really an important industry. This is a pillar of the economy," he said.
The automakers and the UAW will get another chance to make their case to lawmakers Wednesday in front of a House committee, which has proposed a tougher rescue plan that would give the government veto power over the automakers' business decisions.
But if Tuesday's hearing was any guide, the uncertain future that drove executives to Washington will follow them back to Detroit.
"Our responsibility as stewards is to decide whether the cost to the country would be greater if we did nothing," said Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah. "At the moment, everybody's guessing."
Despite the dire warnings of millions of job losses, partisan infighting made in appear unlikely Tuesday that Congress could move to help the automakers by the end of the week.
The sticking point is this: The White House and some congressional Republicans want to rewrite rules on $25 billion in already -authorized loans — intended to retool auto plants to make more fuel-efficient cars — to make the money available to the automakers to pay operational costs. Democrats, especially in the House, say the industry needs operational funds now, from the $700 billion bailout plan for the financial industry, on top of the $25 billion to make more fuel-efficient vehicles, which has yet to be disbursed.