The Carter administration and Congress reacted cautiously yesterday to a bid from the financially stricken Chrysler Corp. for massive tax relief.
Congress looked to the administration for guidance, and a key administration official said the White House has not decided whether a rescue effort should be mounted and, if one is, what form it should take.
While there was widespread agreement that collapse of the nation's third-largest automaker could have severe effects on a recession-bound economy, Chrysler's proposal for $1 billion in tax credits, plus regulatory relief, prompted initial qualms.
Within the administration, officials indicated that there may be legal problems in trying to impose terms or conditions, as the government would probably want, in a tax-relief bill. In Congress, members reported misgivings about a billion-dollar cash bailout to a private company in an austerity-conscious era, especially with no strings attached.
In announcing a staggering secondquarter loss of $307.1 million on Tuesday Chrysler disclosed that it is seeking $500 million in each of the next two years in cash advances against anticipated future tax deductions. In addition, the company said it is seeking a two-year delay in complying with new auto emission standards.
The cash bailout would be the biggest in history, four times the controversial $250 million bank loan guarantee Congress voted for the Lockheed Corp. in 1971, although government subsidies of private enterprise permeate the economy on all leaves.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Russell B. Long (D-La.) indicated concern for Chrysler's plight, but said it is to early to say how Congress will react.
"We did save Lockheed, and we made money on that," Long said. "The alternative is the company going out of business," with a resulting loss of revenue and jobs, he added.
"In the House, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Al Ullman (D-Ore.) said his panel should move speedily on any relief plan drafted by the administration, but gave no hint as to how he or the House would react.
House Banking Committee Chairman henry S. Reuss (D-Wis.) said Congress would give serious consideration to any relief proposal but "needs to be convinced that Chrysler is doing everyting possible to help itself," including retooling its operation to produce more fuel-efficient and mass transit vehicles. Rescue efforts "cannot be viewed positively if Chrysler maintains to business-as-usual attitude," he said.
And Rep. Barber B. Conable Jr. (R.N.Y.), ranking minority member of Ways and Means, expressed strong mis-givings about Chrysler's so-called loss carry-forward tax plan.
"I'm concerned about the precedent, I'm concerned about the degree of ingenuity. . . It's ingenious in the extreme, to use a charitable term," Conable said.
Conable said other relief measures, such as delaying pollution controls for Chrysler, might be more acceptable. But other members of Congress have voiced misgivings about anti-pollution exemptions.
Other sources said Congress will be worried not only about dishing out an immediate $1 billion in cash but also about whether it would ever be paid back. Theoretically, Chrysler would pay back the cash advances by forgoing deductions it vcould claim from taxes on earnings when -- and if -- it regains a more profitable position.
"Some people are bound to ask why the government should put up interest-free money and be last in line behind all the other creditors," said one advocate of aid to Chrysler.
Direct loans or loan guarantees are another possible way of assisting Chrysler, but the company, already deep in debt, is not pushing for that remedy.
Congressional sources said the administration has indicated that it will act promptly on the Chrysler crisis, perhaps within a week or two. But administration officials emphasized yesterday that the only response thus far has been a "studiously neutral" Treasury Department statement Tuesday that it is "concerned" and making a "comprehensive study" of the company's financial situation and proposals.
Sen. Donald W. Riegle (D-Mich.) said after he and Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton (D-Mo.) met for 1 1/2 hours yesterday with Treasury Secretary-designate G. William Miller on the Chrysler problem that Miller "understands the urgency of the situation."
He said he believes the administration is "close to developing a policy position on how best to strengthen Chrysler." He also said it is too early to assess congressional reaction and added, "It is the kind of problem where the administration will have to take the lead."