DETROIT (AP) -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and top Obama administration officials defended last year's federal bailout of automakers on Monday, pointing to new vehicles at the Detroit auto show as a sign of the industry's rebirth.
Pelosi, D-Calif., led a delegation of more than a dozen lawmakers to the prominent automotive showcase, inspecting General Motors' Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in electric vehicle, and other vehicles critical to its rebound from a government-led bankruptcy.
"We've seen ideas turned into policy turned into product," Pelosi said. Asked whether GM would repay its federal loans, Pelosi said GM chairman and interim CEO Ed Whitacre Jr. assured her that "he's a taxpayer and he wants his money back. We feel that we're on the right path now. I think this represents real change."
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood credited the administration's work to save General Motors, Chrysler and auto lender GMAC Financial Services with about $80 billion in aid, along with the government's $3 billion Cash for Clunkers program that boosted auto sales.
"This was a good investment of taxpayer dollars in an industry that needed a little bit of an infusion of resources," LaHood said. He noted that GM, which received about $50 billion in aid, had recently repaid the government $1 billion in loans and was showing signs of recovery.
At an annual event where the cars usually command all the attention, the lawmakers checked out the Volt and the Chevrolet Cruze, a new fuel-efficient compact, surrounded by dozens of reporters, cameramen and hovering boom microphones. Tours of Chrysler, Ford and electric vehicle displays were also on the agenda.
Pelosi's trip was aimed at showing a sign of support for the auto industry, which has been ravaged by the economic downturn. GM and Chrysler were forced into bankruptcy and many automakers and suppliers faced painful job losses and a sharp decline in auto sales.
The U.S. government owns about 61 percent of General Motors and nearly 10 percent of Chrysler. GM has said it will repay nearly $7 billion in loans by June and is working to conduct a public stock offering, which could lead to the repayment of some of the billions.
Government watchdogs have expressed doubt that the government will get all its money back. The Congressional Oversight Panel reviewing the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program said last year that most of the $23 billion initially provided to GM and Chrysler was unlikely to be repaid.
Whitacre has projected a positive outlook for the company, telling reporters last week that GM could be profitable this year depending on economic factors. "We're going to make you proud," Whitacre told Pelosi. "You're going to like what we do."
The trip also included meetings with Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, whose state has held the nation's highest unemployment rate for much of the past four years.
Providing more help, the Energy Department announced $187 million in funding for projects to boost the fuel efficiency of heavy-duty trucks and passenger vehicles. General Motors, Chrysler and Ford Motor Co. were among the beneficiaries.
GM vice chairman Bob Lutz said Sunday that Washington's interest in the auto industry was welcome after being ignored by U.S. lawmakers for decades while other nation's backed their carmakers.
He said he had always thought the U.S. "was the only car-producing nation in the world where the administration and the politicians ... didn't know about American car companies, didn't care about American car companies -- none of the politicians drove American cars."
"It's like we were the stepchild of the American industry and the American economy," Lutz said.
"Unfortunately it took the financial failure of the American automobile industry to make the whole country aware of the importance of the American automobile industry," Lutz said at a Society of Automotive Analysts event.
LaHood said the auto industry was "one of the very strong pillars of our economy. We know as this industry comes back the economy will come back."
Government leaders took a prominent role on the first day of the North American International Auto Show, a major industry showcase with wall-to-wall vehicle unveilings and thousands of journalists. The government's influence was apparent -- even a local coffee company served "organic bailout blend" in the media lounge.