By MANU RAJU
As General Motors announced the temporary closure of 20 plants Friday, Republicans who fought a White House-backed bailout plan want Americans to blame the United Auto Workers and think about Rod Blagojevich.
The GOP strategy, previewed in an “action alert” sent by a Republican lobbyist and outlined by Republican aides, is based on the idea that the best defense is a good offense — and the hope that the taint of the Illinois governor will rub off on organized labor.
“This is the Democrats’ first opportunity to pay off organized labor after the election ... a precursor to card check and other items,” said the memo. “Republicans should stand firm and take their first shot against organized labor, instead of taking their first blow from it.”
Hours after that memo was circulated Wednesday, five GOP senators went before TV cameras to declare their opposition to a $14 billion bailout for GM, Chrysler and Ford. The House approved the plan Wednesday night, but it died in the Senate Thursday night when only 10 Republican voted for a procedural motion to allow passage.
With world markets plunging on the news, the Bush administration quickly opened the door to using money from this fall’s $700 billion financial-market bailout to keep Chrysler and GM alive into next year — an idea it had previously rejected.
Some Republican senators are resistant to that plan, too, saying the White House shouldn’t do anything to help the automakers without imposing the restructuring requirements that would have been included in the congressional bailout plan.
Either way, GOP aides are already plotting their strategy to deal with any blowback on the bailout vote. They’ll portray the UAW as intransigent; hammer away at the theme that unions don’t effectively represent mainstream workers; and play up the involvement of labor officials in the corruption scandal revolving around the Democratic governor of Illinois.
The hope: By making Big Labor the bogeyman, Republicans will escape blame for whatever happens with the automakers and set themselves up well for the card check debate expected to hit Capitol Hill after the first of the year.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who played a central role in the negotiations that fell apart Thursday, put parts of the plan into play Friday.
In an interview with Politico, Corker said that the bailout plan lost any hope of Republican support in the Senate when the UAW refused to agree to a “date certain” on which the secretary of labor would begin the process of certifying that the wages paid by domestic automakers were “competitive” with those paid by foreign manufacturers with U.S. plants.
And in a press conference, Corker said a Republican alternative to the White House-backed plan could have passed both the House and the Senate if the UAW had “released” Democrats to vote for it.
“I hate to be so blunt,” Corker said. “That’s politics.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) echoed Corker’s suggestion that the UAW’s position on the wages issue was the “sticking point,” and he washed his hands of responsibility for the Big Three’s larger problems.
“None of us want to see them go down,” he said in a statement, “but very few of us had anything to do with the dilemma that they've created for themselves.”
But Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) suggested that the Republicans had set up the wage fight solely for the purpose of scoring points against the UAW.
“I think it was designed to create a political problem rather than solve an economic one,” Dodd said.
Dodd called the wages provision an “impossible condition” that would have caused a riot among Senate Democrats, and he said Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her closest adviser, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), would have laughed at him if he had agreed to it.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) issued a statement saying that Republicans were “recklessly playing games with the nation s economy just so they can take shots against unionized workers.”
UAW officials argued that the competitive-wage certification requirement would have singled out the union’s workers and done little to reduce the companies’ debt. They argued that no other stakeholder in the autowmakers’ future was being forced to agree to such a demand – and that union members could not afford to take a pay cut in difficult economic times.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a conservative stalwart who voted against the bill, rejected the notion that Republicans were gunning for the UAW but added that a job with a slight wage cut was better than no job at all.
Bill Samuel, director of government affairs for the AFL-CIO, said Thursday night’s vote against the bailout plan was a last gasp from the most conservative elements of the Republican Party. With a smaller minority next year, he said, these conservative Republicans won’t be able as successful in blocking legislation.
But a bigger Democratic majority in the Senate has come at the expense of some moderate Republicans who have long been allies of organized labor, leaving unions with just a handful of reliable GOP votes next Congress.
Martin Kady II and Ryan Grim contributed to this report.