"I recognize that this is a significant amount of public money. However, we believe this is the least costly alternative considering the depth of the economic crisis and the options we face," he said.
But an economist, Mark Zandi of Moody's Economy.com, told the Senate Banking Committee that while bankruptcy will be more expensive than bailing out the car companies, he does not believe $34 billion will be the final price tag.
"$34 billion and a plan may not be enough for them to become viable again and Congress should prepare for this eventuality," Zandi said, predicting that by next fall auto makers will be back asking for more loans. Zandi predicted a final tab of between $75 billion and $125 billion.
Offering the perspective of car dealers, James Fleming, president of the Connecticut Automotive Retailers Association, said failures at the big three automakers would be devastating for small businesses because it's exceedingly difficult for a dealer to get people financed for cars when banks are hesitant to give them money.
"To our people, to these small business people, it is a tsunami, it is not a ripple," Fleming said.
"What you're voting for here, what you're supporting here is keeping people employed in those small businesses in your district," he said.
After an unsuccessful trip to Washington a few weeks ago to plead their case, the CEOs of Ford, General Motors and Chrysler hoped this time would be different. For starters they came to Washington in hybrid and prototype electric vehicles instead of private jets as a sign of a commitment to fuel-efficient cars and frugal travel.
Lawmakers from the Rust Belt and auto company leaders were outside the hearing building this morning to display some of the fuel-efficient technology they used for the road trip to Washington.
GM CEO Rick Wagoner, who arrived in a prototype for the forthcoming Chevy Volt, admitted that GM needs an infusion of cash before the end of the month to stay afloat.
"We're sorry to be asking for this support," Wagoner said. "We wish the market conditions were better. They're not. So this is what we need to do."
United Auto Workers president Ron Gettelfinger also arrived in town this morning from Detroit -- on a commercial flight.
"We are pleased to be here and to have the opportunity to testify again before Congress and we are going to make a pitch again for the emergency low-interest bridge loan to get the industry through a downturn that is not of their making," the union president told ABC News this morning at Reagan National Airport.
"We are going to talk about bankruptcy. We are going to present testimony that shows that it is a failed concept and will not work in this case."
While the automakers were, for the most part, well-received on Capitol Hill today, the hearing made clear that most legislative remedies would be complicated, long-term fixes. And it's not at all clear that Congress could pass a bailout, even if most members wanted to.
After the hearing, both Dodd and Michigan Sen. Carl Levin again implored the White House to use the funds in the Troubled Asset Relief Program to boost the auto industry. If the administration will not allocate TARP money, Levin said Congress would proceed with legislation next week, but said he wasn't sure whether lawmakers had enough votes to do so.