Officials struck an agreement in principle on the measure Tuesday and hoped to finalize it and schedule swift House and Senate votes as early as Wednesday. Money could be disbursed within days to cash-starved General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC, while Ford Motor Co. - which has said it has enough liquidity to stay afloat - would be eligible for federal aid.
All three would have to negotiate with labor unions, creditors and others and submit blueprints by March 31 to an industry czar named by President George W. Bush showing how they would restructure to ensure their survival. If not, the emergency loans would be revoked, the companies cut off from further federal help, and the government overseer could order his own overhaul, including forcing them into bankruptcy.
After days of marathon negotiations over the plan, congressional aides and White House officials were still fine-tuning legislative details of the agreement. It could face substantial obstacles from Republican lawmakers, who remained skeptical of the White House-negotiated plan.
A group of conservatives led by Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., who has threatened to block the measure, planned a midday news conference Wednesday.
As the measure took shape Tuesday, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he was concerned that Democrats were proposing a package that "fails to require the kind of serious reform that will ensure long-term viability for struggling automobile companies."
With their approach, "we open the door to unlimited federal subsidies in the future," McConnell said.
Getting 60 votes for an agreement, with many senators expected to be absent for the emergency, post-election debate, could be tricky.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., an ally of the auto industry, said, "This gets us to the 20-yard line, but getting over the goal line will take a major effort, particularly in the Senate."
He called for Bush and President-elect Barack Obama to lobby personally for the auto bailout.
Regardless, the bailout may provide just a fraction of what the struggling auto industry ultimately needs.
"[The bailout] would certainly get us well into the next administration, at which point we can discuss what it's really going to take," General Motors vice chairman Robert Lutz told CBS' The Early Show.