Health care action sought

Mich. congressional delegation urges Bush to consider automakers' concerns

November 23, 2006|By Detroit Free Press

WASHINGTON -- Michigan's congressional delegation unanimously urged President Bush yesterday to take "vigorous federal action" on health care, trade and energy concerns raised by the heads of Detroit's three automakers in their meeting last week.

Whether those words lead to action won't be seen until January, when Democrats take the majority in Congress and Bush outlines his agenda in his State of the Union address.

Democratic Rep. John D. Dingell, the next chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, says he plans hearings on issues such as currency manipulation.

"It's our view that the administration can and should do a great deal more to help the industry," Dingell said yesterday."

It was not just a partisan call. The nine Republicans among Michigan's 17-member delegation also signed the letter.

It was written amid growing concern that the automakers' financial woes could drag Michigan's economy further behind the rest of the nation, with unemployment rising through 2008. University of Michigan forecasters have estimated the state will lose 32,000 manufacturing jobs next year, most of them in automaking.

"I think it does call attention to the fact that the administration should be mindful of a certain urgency here," said Republican Rep. Joe Knollenberg. "What we don't need to do is to see this languish or continue to be ignored. Something needs to be done in areas where they can do something."

Knollenberg and Dingell said the delegation's letter grew from its meeting with auto executives a day before the president sat down with the chiefs of General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and the Chrysler Group.

The delegation had urged the automakers to be more aggressive in making their case. Dingell said the industry's concerns had not won much attention in past meetings with the administration "because they were so nice nobody knew what the hell they wanted when they finished the meeting."

The auto executives and the administration said their meeting would lead to future conversations, but produced no promises of action.

White House spokesman Alex Conant confirmed that the administration had received the delegation's letter and said the president was committed to strengthening a "vital" American industry.

"During his trip to Asia last week, the president reminded our trading partners that we expect trade to be fair. The president will continue to work with Congress on initiatives to reduce health care costs and improve American competitiveness," Conant said.

The Michigan delegation detailed its concerns on three topics:

Trade: Unlike the automakers, the lawmakers added China to Japan and South Korea as countries where exports benefit from government-led currency manipulation. They also warned against negotiating free-trade agreements with South Korea and Thailand that would open the U.S. market for pickup trucks to imports without reciprocal moves in those countries.

Health care: The lawmakers say generic drugs, better use of technology and some sort of national system for managing costs for the sickest patients top the priority list.

Energy: The lawmakers want the administration to get commitments from the oil industry to support ethanol filling stations, along with research into renewable fuels and more advanced engine technology.

Knollenberg said progress would benefit industries in addition to automakers - an argument key to enlisting lawmakers from outside Michigan. For instance, he said, "maybe there's some strategy utilized to figure this thing so that the result would help all employers that provide health care."

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