Friday, November 10, 2006

Bush sets mid-Nov. meeting with Big 3

Wednesday, October 25, 2006
Bush sets mid-Nov. meeting with Big 3
David Shepardson / Detroit News Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Bush will meet next month with the CEOs of General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group after more than six months of delays, a senior Bush aide said Tuesday.

Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser, told WJR Radio that a meeting was set for next month at the White House. He did not cite a specific date, but auto industry officials said it would likely be Nov. 14, although that could slip a day or two to accommodate the CEOs' schedules. Bush leaves the country Nov. 18.

On the agenda: soaring health care costs, alternative energy and trade.

Rove offered some conciliatory comments on what role the government should play in reining in the auto industry's health care costs a day after Bush rejected the notion of federal intervention.

"We need to find a way to help moderate their dramatic increase in health care costs," Rove told WJR's Paul W. Smith in an interview from the White House. "We need to expand markets. We need to have a level playing field so they can sell their products abroad."

Rove's comments were in contrast to Bush's remarks Monday during an interview on CNBC, when he was asked how far the government should go "in terms of bailing out the autos."

Bush rejected any suggestion that the federal government pick up health care costs. "To the extent that they made commitments, they've got to keep their commitments," he said. "There's a lot of people saying, 'Well, you need to take their, take their health, their benefits that they promised off their hands.' No, I don't think that's a proper role of government. They made a private contract with their employees. They need to keep it."

But Bush said he would talk with the auto CEOs generally about health care costs and ways the government could help to reduce them.

The auto companies have insisted they aren't seeking a bailout.

The frequent delays for the meeting, initially set for May, have turned it into an election-year political issue in Michigan as Democrats strongly criticize Bush for paying little attention to the struggling U.S. auto industry.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Liz Boyd, dismissed Rove's assurances about a meeting next month. "Tell us when they will meet. There was no date," Boyd said Tuesday. "This is an industry that is reeling from the effects of globalization and from failed Bush trade policies."

Dick DeVos, the Republican candidate for governor, chided the White House in August for not holding the meeting.

"He went out on a limb, and that didn't make him too popular at the White House," DeVos spokesman John Truscott said Tuesday.

If Democrats take control of the House or Senate, the Big Three CEOs would likely head up to Capitol Hill as well as the White House, two auto officials said.

In July, GM CEO Rick Wagoner appeared on Capitol Hill asking Congress for a number of reforms to help businesses cope with runaway health care costs. In August, he chastised the federal government's failure to do anything.

The Big Three spend more than $10 billion annually on health care costs, and GM and Ford have a nearly $100 billion accumulated health care liability.

GM is the largest private provider of health care in the United States, spending $5.3 billion to cover 1.1 million people in 2005. The company expects its health care costs to rise to $7.4 billion by 2009 -- despite an agreement with the United Auto Workers that will reduce costs by $1 billion a year.

Ford spent $3.5 billion last year to cover 590,000 people, including employees, retirees and dependents. Its health care costs have soared 67 percent since 2000 and the company now spends $1,100 per vehicle on health care -- more than it spends on steel.

Ford has negotiated a deal with the UAW to cut health costs. Only Chrysler has been unable to secure concessions from the union. The automaker is expected to report a $1.5 billion loss when it releases third-quarter earnings today.

Rove said the administration is in regular contact with the auto industry. "We talk to the auto boys all the time," Rove said. "(The auto industry's) important to America."

Last month, Bush called Ford Chairman Bill Ford Jr. to assure him that the meeting would go ahead after the November election.

Chrysler spokesman Jason Vines said Tuesday that the automaker isn't upset by the delays.

"The guy's got two wars going, and we've got a war of our own," Vines said. "It'll be good to sit down with the president."

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

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