DETROIT -- Tennessee U.S. Senator Robert Corker came to the Detroit auto show today and said Chrysler LLC needs to find a merger partner and General Motors is carrying too much debt.
Corker, a freshman Republican, emerged as a point man in the automotive debate after he and a group of Southern lawmakers blocked auto-bailout legislation last month.
Leading a throng of reporters on the floor of the show, Corker said he came to Detroit in response to a plea by Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox. Cox asked lawmakers to visit the show in a column published in Tuesdays Washington Post.
Corkers visit underscored the attention the industry has drawn as the U.S. economy reels from the longest recession since the early 1980s. At the end of 2008, U.S. auto sales had plunged to levels not seen since 1982.
In response to a reporters question about Chrysler, Coker said the automakers best chance of survival is with a partner.
Chrysler probably needs to merge with somebody, not necessarily go away from the standpoint of existence, he said. It appears to me based on what I have looked at that they have not invested in technology and those kind of things necessary to be a standalone.
My hope is they will in fact merge and be a viable part of Michigan and our country.
After the bailout legislation failed in Congress, the Bush administration last month pledge $17.4 billion in loans for Chrysler and GM from the $700 billion bailout fund for the financial industry.
Chrysler and GM each have received $4 billion so far, and GM is targeted for the balance.
Corker, whose home state includes a GM assembly plant in Spring Hill and the North American headquarters of Japan's Nissan Motor Co., said he was concerned about GMs debt load.
If you look at GM with $62 billion in debt and the VEBA (retiree health care funding) obligations they have, even in good times they cannot make those commitments, he said. Our hope is that the bond holders and all the stakeholders together will do those things necessary for GM and Chrysler, and possibly at some point Ford, to have the right capital structure to go ahead successfully.
Corker also addressed criticism hes received for asking the UAW for wage concessions as part of a compromise that ultimately failed in the Senate.
The senator said he was misquoted and that he never said UAW workers earned too much money.
I never said that, he said. What I said was they needed to be competitive. That was the language that I used. We only focused on the active worker.
The U.S. Treasury still required the UAW to take wage concessions as part of the White House bailout.
A proposal to strip the Corker-inspired labor provisions from the automaker rescue was included in legislation introduced in the House of Representatives last week to expand the government's $700 billion corporate bailout program.
Chrissie Thompson, Philip Nussel and Reuters contributed to this report