9/11 Lawyer Could Become 'Car Czar'

Congressional officials say lawyer who oversaw the 9/11 victims' compensation fund has emerged as a candidate to be in charge of a bailout for Detroit's Big Three automakers.

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The White House and a top Democratic lawmaker said they were likely to strike a deal Monday on a multibillion-dollar automaker bailout that would put a government "car czar" in charge of overseeing a restructuring Detroit's Big Three.

Congressional officials said Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer who oversaw the federal Sept. 11 victims' compensation fund, is under consideration for the post.

"It sounds like we have agreement on those basic principles that would be required for a bill that the president could sign," White House press secretary Dana Perino told reporters.

The developing measure would provide about $15 billion in emergency loans, but it also would give a presidentially named overseer the power to require payback early next year if the companies failed to take the steps necessary to overhaul themselves. Congressional aides outlined the plan on condition of anonymity because it was not yet completed.

Under the plan, the carmakers' could get emergency loans on Dec. 15. Then the overseer -- a kind of "car czar" -- would write guidelines, due on the first of the year, for a restructuring of General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC. If the car companies hadn't taken enough steps to reinvent themselves by Feb. 15, the overseer could recall the money.

That would essentially mean that a person selected by President George W. Bush would set the terms for an auto industry restructuring, but the decision about whether the terms were being met would not be made until President-elect Barack Obama had been sworn in. Congressional Democrats and the White House were working to find a broadly supported candidate who could span the two administrations.

Congressional officials said Feinberg was under consideration for the position.

Asked if a deal could be struck for a vote as early as Monday, Perino said, "I think it's very likely." She prodded senior Democratic lawmakers to send their proposal, particularly if they expected initial votes within 24 hours. "It seems pretty soon if we haven't seen the language yet," she said.

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., the Financial Services Committee chairman, said that he, too, expected a deal by the end of the day on a proposal that would draw emergency aid from an existing loan program meant to help the automakers build fuel-efficient vehicles. House and Senate Democratic aides were finalizing the package, which was expected to provide between $14 billion and $17 billion.

"There should be agreement by the end of today," Frank said on CNBC. He said he expected the bailout would clear Congress and be signed by Bush "before the week (is) out."

Some issues remain, however.

Several lawmakers are eager to force the automakers to bring in new top executives as a condition of federal aid. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., wants a requirement in the bailout bill to separate the jobs of chairman and chief executive officer, which would strip GM's Rick Wagoner and Chrysler's Bob Nardelli of some power and bring in new people to transform the companies. Ford already splits the two positions, between CEO Alan Mulally and Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr.

Chris Dodd, D-Conn., chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, said Sunday that Wagoner "has to move on" as part of a government-run restructuring.

"I think you have got to consider new leadership," Dodd said on CBS' "Face the Nation."

In return for the rescue money, the carmakers would have to agree to terms similar to those placed on banks that receive funds under the $700 billion Wall Street bailout: to limit their top executives' pay packages, cease paying dividends, give the government a chunk of future gains and guarantee that taxpayers would be reimbursed before any other shareholders, congressional aides said.

Some lawmakers still want to create a Cabinet-level oversight board to help run the bailout, although the proposal appeared to be losing traction, with the White House pushing for a single adviser who could send the companies into bankruptcy if the companies don't make progress on fundamental shifts.

Criticized for staying on the sidelines until now, Obama voiced support Sunday for the bailout legislation being drafted in Congress. He accused car industry executives of a persistent "head-in-the-sand approach" to long-festering problems.

Associated Press Writers Ben Feller and Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.

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