The White House described the condition of the country's carmakers today as "fragile," as negotiators struggled to hammer out a possible financial bailout package before the auto giants collapse.
Pressure grew for a deal as Chrysler announced Wednesday it will close all 30 of its manufacturing facilities in North America until Jan. 19. Chrysler's move to conserve cash will suspend production of its cars and trucks for the greater part of the month, affecting about 46,000 members of the United Auto Workers.
The Chrysler shutdown comes on the heels of a warning to dealers that the automaker may halt financing for stocking showrooms. Many dealers say that buyers are out there but that loans are unavailable, resulting in a 20 percent to 25 percent loss in sales. Meanwhile, Chrysler is burning through more than $1 billion a month.
And General Motors, which also faces the possibility of collapse without a federal rescue, said Wednesday it will delay construction of a factory in Flint, Mich., set to produce the plug-in electric Chevy Volt, in order to conserve cash.
The Wall Street Journal reported today that Cerberus Capital Management LP, which owns Chrysler, had resumed merger talks with General Motors in an effort to shed some of the expense and to convince Washington it is ready for drastic changes.
But GM promptly issued a statement denying that merger talks had restarted.
GM and Chrysler had been in talks earlier this year to combine in order to survive the recession and slowing U.S. sales, but financing emerged as one of the biggest obstacles.
Talks about a White House bailout for the two manufacturing giants has taken longer than a worried Detroit had hoped, but White House spokesman Dana Perino said today that the administration is aware of the urgency.
"It's clear that the automakers are in a very fragile financial condition and they're taking steps to deal with it," Perino said. "We're aware of their financial situation and are considering possible policy options to provide assistance in an appropriate way. As we've said, a disorderly collapse of the auto industry should be avoided."
For weeks, the carmakers have insisted that they face a real deadline. GM has told lawmakers it needs an infusion of $4 billion in taxpayer loans before the end of the year or the company will go bankrupt.
While many Americans and lawmakers alike have questioned the severity of the automakers' situation and whether they deserve federal aid, Chrysler and GM's announcements leave the fate of the entire auto industry unknown.
President Bush Wednesday said that the bailout must be resolved "relatively soon." But with Chrysler and GM suspending work, it leaves the deadline for a bill even more pressing.
Some of the GOP senators who killed a congressional bill to save American carmakers last week have written to the president to say they don't believe "any amount of money" will save the struggling car companies without major changes to how they operate.
The seven senators sent their letter to President Bush as the White House is considering whether to use a portion of the $700 billion in the Troubled Asset Relief Program to stave off the collapse of General Motors and Chrysler.