Friday, June 23, 2006

Big Three rebuffed third time by Bush

Thursday, June 22, 200
Big Three rebuffed third time by Bush
Mich. officials believe Republicans don't care about automakers after meeting delayed again.
David Shepardson / Detroit News Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's planned meeting with the Big Three has been postponed a third time -- this time until July -- which may add to the perception Detroit's automakers are struggling to get their message heard by the White House.

The automakers have been trying to meet with Bush to discuss soaring health-care costs, energy and trade issues. The Big Three have been waiting to follow the summit with an announcement about their commitment to producing more flexible fuel vehicles.

An initial meeting with Bush was set on May 18. The meeting was rescheduled for June 2 then postponed. The White House told automakers it was committed to a gathering by the end of June.

That deadline will come and go, and no firm date has been set in July.

"This is the most important industry in Michigan and, for that matter, the country, and the CEOs can't get a meeting with the president of the United States. That should speak volumes to voters in Michigan as to how the Republicans feel," said Gov. Jennifer Granholm's campaign spokesman Chris DeWitt.

White House spokesman Alex Conant said the administration has never confirmed any date for the meeting.

The automakers Wednesday declined to comment on the postponement.

Michigan Republican gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos "has talked to all the automakers and offered to make a call to get the meeting set up," said his spokesman John Truscott. He said DeVos is sympathetic to the automakers positions on trade, currency and alternative fuels, but added: "No single state governor can solve the legacy cost issues of global companies."

Specifically, Detroit's CEOs want to discuss a proposal to reform pensions that could cost General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. billions of dollars, improving access to alternative fuels at the pump, and what the automakers call currency "manipulation" by the Chinese and Japanese central banks -- a claim the Asian automakers deny.

The domestic automakers also are smarting from a comment Bush made recently in the Wall Street Journal. The president said the Big Three need to build "relevant" vehicles.

That comment prompted GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, a lifelong Republican, to say he planned to cast a protest vote for possible Democratic presidential candidate, U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Her husband, former President Bill Clinton, is expected to attend a Detroit fundraiser for Granholm and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, in August.

Despite the meeting delays, the auto industry continues its Washington offensive.

GM's chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner will testify before the U.S. Senate special committee on aging on July 13 about the company's staggering health care burden, which costs $1,500 per vehicle -- more than is spent on steel.

Wagoner plans to "highlight what GM is doing to improve health care and reduce costs for our employees and retirees," GM spokesman Greg Martin said.

GM is the largest single private purchaser of health care in the United States. The company spent $5.4 billion last year in providing health care for 1 in 271 Americans. It's also the largest purchaser of prescription drugs, spending $1.5 billion in 2005. GM expects its health care bill to reach $7.4 billion in 2009.

Ford Motor Co. Americas President Mark Fields spoke last week to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce about health care, trade, currency and other issues.

You can reach David Shepardson at (202) 662-8735 or


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