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Auto Chiefs to Discuss Energy With Congress

By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Executives of the Big Three U.S. automakers will meet tomorrow with congressional leaders of both parties in four back-to-back meetings for discussions that are expected to center on energy issues, according to sources familiar with the planning.

The auto executives had been scheduled to meet with President Bush tomorrow, but the meeting was postponed until June 2. The congressional meeting will be attended by Ford Motor Co. Chairman William Clay Ford Jr., General Motors Corp. Chairman Rick Wagoner and Chrysler chief executive Thomas W. LaSorda.

The executives are scheduled to meet with House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), according to the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to divulge the plans. In the Senate, they are to meet with Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

The U.S. auto companies have been battered by rising gasoline prices in the past year. Profit at GM and Ford and DaimlerChrysler AG, which owns Chrysler, depends heavily on sales of large pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles. Consumers have been turning to smaller passenger cars.

The profit crunch at GM and Ford last year forced both automakers to plan 26 plant closings and the elimination of as many as 60,000 jobs. Chrysler, the smallest of Detroit's Big Three automakers, restructured earlier in the decade.

The Detroit automakers are seeking help from the government. For example, millions of U.S.-made vehicles on the road are capable of using ethanol, a corn-based fuel. But the companies say they need the government to do more to expand the number of ethanol fueling stations. Of the 180,000 gasoline stations nationwide, an estimated 600 sell an ethanol blend called E85.

LaSorda, while in Washington last month, said investment in expanding the use of ethanol could help lead the country to energy independence. Ford has called on the government to expand subsidies and tax breaks for hybrid vehicles and U.S.-based research and development of the technology.

Ford is the only Detroit automaker currently selling hybrids. Early investment by Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. put them in the lead.

The Detroit automakers have also complained about escalating costs of health care and pensions for millions of current and retired workers and their families. They say the added cost puts them at a competitive disadvantage with Japanese, European and Korean automakers, which benefit from national health care systems. The U.S. auto makers also have argued that Asian nations use unfair trade policies and currency manipulation that favor their companies.

Bush has put the U.S. executives on the defensive by calling on their companies to build "relevant products" and by ruling out large-scale government support for the industry.

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