February 4, 2009 at 2:32 pm

Obama auto team taking shape

White House narrows list for auto czar; ex-GM consultant is a top candidate to oversee auto reform.

WASHINGTON -- Stephen Girsky, a longtime auto-industry analyst who heads the private-equity firm Centerbridge Industrial Partners, is a leading candidate to become a member of President Barack Obama's auto restructuring team, people familiar with the matter said Tuesday.

Girsky, a former General Motors Corp. consultant who has recently advised the United Auto Workers on issues including the union's efforts to obtain federal loans, is not expected to be named auto czar. Instead, he is likely to become the No. 2 official or as a member of a board overseeing the restructuring of GM and Chrysler LLC. Girsky could not be reached for comment.

Another private-equity figure, Steven Rattner, a partner at the Quadrangle Group in New York, is still a leading candidate to be auto czar.

The White House, which could announce its picks as early as this month, has been racing to name a team to oversee the Treasury Department's nearly $25 billion in loans to automakers and their finance companies. Both GM, which has been authorized to receive $13.4 billion in loans, and Chrysler, which has received $4 billion, must file restructuring plans by Feb. 17 and show significant progress toward viability by March 31.

Chrysler is seeking another $3 billion in loans.

Meanwhile, at the Washington Auto Show on Tuesday, top members of the Obama administration toured the show followed by dozens of staffers and reporters. The members included Carol Browner, assistant to the president for energy and climate change, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

More than a dozen members of Congress have toured the show as well amid a heightened interest in auto issues.

Obama last week ordered the EPA to revisit whether California and 13 other states should be able to impose a 30 percent reduction in tailpipe emissions standards by 2016. The administration also has said it wants to include in the stimulus bill $2 billion in funding for advanced battery research to help speed development of plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles.

"The stimulus is going to make all of this even more possible," Browner said.

On Tuesday, the Senate voted 71-26 to add a tax break to the stimulus bill that would allow taxpayers to deduct interest and sales tax paid on new car purchases of up to $49,500 on their income taxes. The average buyer of a $25,000 car could see a $1,500 reduction in taxes under the measure sponsored by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat. It applies to people making up to $125,000 a year and would last until Dec. 31.

Browner's deputy, Heather Zichal, declined to say whether the Obama administration would adopt a tougher fuel efficiency standard than the one drafted but not finalized by the Bush administration. She said the White House also is working on the issue along with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Obama has ordered NHTSA to set higher fuel efficiency regulations for only the 2011 model year by March 30.

"We want to move quickly and aggressively on (fuel economy) standards," Zichal said.

Dave McCurdy, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the trade group representing Detroit's Big Three automakers, Toyota Motor Corp., Daimler AG, and six other automakers, said he sensed a willingness among the administration to work with the industry on issues.

You can reach David Shepardson at (202) 662-8735 or dshepardson@detnews.com">dshepardson@detnews.com.