WASHINGTON -- General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner said Thursday that talk of an alliance with Nissan and Renault is a potential distraction from his company's effort to turn itself around. But he also said GM can handle both.
"We're a big company," Wagoner told reporters here. "We've got a lot of people, and I can assure you the vast, vast majority of them are focused on continuing to drive the turnaround."
Still, Wagoner added, GM cannot afford to be diverted from big things that remain to be done. He said a small, skilled group of GM employees who have a lot of experience with alliances will look at possible benefits of a deal with Renault and Nissan.
Wagoner testified Thursday at a Senate hearing on health care costs. Afterwards, he discussed with reporters his views about his closely watched meeting, scheduled for Friday, with Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Renault SA and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.
The face-to-face session is supposed to establish procedures the companies will follow in determining whether the three automakers should engage in some kind of affiliation.
Wagoner said options need to be considered thoughtfully, but the process should proceed "at a crisp pace." He insisted, as he has repeatedly since the idea of an alliance emerged late last month, that he has an open mind about the prospect.
But he also emphasized that a possible, even desirable, outcome could be no deal at all. He hinted that deals with other automakers are also possible.
"It's certainly possible that we'll get something that makes a lot of sense, but I don't think it's for certain," Wagoner said. "We have to do that work. So it's conceivable that we could come up with an endpoint that doesn't provide a basis for going forward.
"Could other things arise?" he said. "Sure, they could happen any time, but nothing else I can talk to you about today."
Investor Kirk Kerkorian's proposal for a GM-Nissan-Renault alliance has captured the interest of the auto industry and the news media. A small army of reporters and camera operators pursued Wagoner to ask about the possible corporate marriage.
Controlling health care costs
During the hearing conducted by the Senate Special Committee on Aging, Wagoner outlined steps GM has taken to control health care costs while trying to maintain quality.
The committee wants to determine whether lessons learned by companies, states and others could be applied to the giant, government-funded Medicaid program, which provides care to poor and disabled Americans.
A moment of drama appeared at hand when Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., asked Wagoner why companies such as GM don't use their market and political influence to insist on comprehensive health care reform. But before he could complete his answer, Clinton left for the Senate floor.
Later, Wagoner told reporters that Americans remain divided about the elements of comprehensive reform. For now, he said, it is better to move incrementally on improvements that everyone accepts.
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