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Auto Bailout Is Local Issue, Dealers Plead

Hayden Elder's beaver pelt cowboy hat delivered his message to lawmakers as starkly as anything else did: The proposed $25 billion federal loan to keep the U.S. auto industry breathing is a local issue.

Elder, who sells Chryslers, Dodges and Jeeps in Athens, Texas, is part of a posse of several dozen dealers from across the country blanketing congressional offices this week. They want legislators to view the plan not as a bailout of Detroit's Big Three automakers - not a popular sell with the whole country hurting - but a way to prevent pillars of thousands of local communities from crumbling.

"What happens to the local church? Who gives to the food pantry?" said Elder of his dealership's contributions, which go beyond jobs and local taxes to the rodeos he stages to benefit disease research and the local Chamber of Commerce. "We're talking about Main Street, USA."

The dealers' lobbying underscores how the auto industry has launched an all-out effort for the rescue package, which seems stalled under opposition from President George W. Bush and congressional Republicans. Opponents say the auto companies have only themselves to blame for incurring excessive costs and lagging behind foreign manufacturers, and express fears about what federal aid to them might mean.

"I have serious concerns if you open the door for one industry, how do you close it for another," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who said he was telephoned by General Motors chief executive Rick Wagoner.

Dealers like Elder are the infantry in the industry's effort to sway Congress. Bailey Wood, spokesman for the National Automobile Dealers Association, said about 50 are in town this week, out of his group's 19,700 foreign and domestic franchised auto dealers - about 90 percent of the nation's total.

On Wednesday, the CEOs of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler are pressing their case for the bailout before the House Financial Services Committee, a day after sometimes confrontational testimony before a Senate panel.

Tuesday also saw the industry's generals on Capitol Hill, as Wagoner and the chiefs of Chrysler LLC and Ford told the Senate Banking Committee the stability of the nation's economy was at stake.

Like other industries, the big auto companies also rely on cash to get their message through.

In the first nine months of 2008, auto interests - including manufacturers and dealers - spent just under $50 million for federal lobbying. That ranked in the top 20 among all industries, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks such expenditures.

The auto industry and its employees spent another $15 million on campaign contributions to federal candidates and parties in 2007 and 2008, ranking 28th among more than 80 industries, according to the center.

While the CEOs drew most attention Tuesday, the auto dealers methodically - and sometimes not so methodically - filtered through the hallways of the Capitol and its adjacent office buildings.

One lobbying team showed up Tuesday at the office of Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., only to learn the meeting was scheduled for Wednesday.

But luck has a way of evening out. At one point, David Kelleher, with Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge dealerships in Philadelphia and Glen Mills, Pa., entered the Capitol and bumped right into Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., in a basement hallway.

"Do you know how bad it is on the floors right now?" Kelleher told him, referring to how slowly cars are moving out of showrooms. "This thing is just frozen."

"We've got to try to do something. It's the right thing to do," Casey replied.

Minutes later, Chuck Eddy got a private audience with Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and also emphasized the local angle.

"I'm not here representing the Big Three," said Eddy, a dealer from Youngstown, Ohio, previewing his argument with Brown. "But we have to keep them alive to keep us alive."

Brown was already a staunch supporter of the proposed loan but said later that his time with Eddy was helpful.

"He represents what's happening to dealers all over this country," said Brown. "He helps strengthen my argument."

Not all were so receptive. One lawmaker Elder met Tuesday, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, said afterward he wasn't convinced the $25 billion would solve the automakers' problems.

"I drove to work this morning in a '98 Jeep Cherokee" made by Chrysler, he said. "I like it, but clearly a lot of Americans don't like these products."

Most dealers in town this week sell Chryslers. The manufacturer covered their expenses by agreeing to hold a company-paid quarterly meeting of the group in Washington instead of Detroit, said Stuart Schorr, a Chrysler spokesman.

Ford spokesman Mike Moran said his company had e-mailed employees and dealers encouraging them to contact their senators and representatives.

Also in the Capitol Tuesday were mayors of Shreveport, La., Arlington, Texas, and other communities to urge passage of the rescue package.

"If we expect people to live in a community with decent services, we cannot provide it if we lose this revenue," said Karen Majewski, mayor of Hamtramck, Mich. "We're talking about the lifeblood of our city."

Approval of the $25 billion seems unlikely until next year, when the odds will improve under new President Barack Obama and stronger Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.

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