July 17, 2014 at 8:28 pm

Senate panel praises GM CEO Barra for handling of recall crisis

GM CEO Mary Barra and Delphi CEO Rodney O'Neal, right, at the Senate committee hearing Thursday. (Brendan Smiakowski / AFP/Getty Images)

General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra, who was grilled during her first Senate appearance earlier this year on the ignition switch recall, faced a less contentious panel Thursday, as several senators praised her for stepping up and dealing with the crisis.

Many members of Congress said in the run-up to Thursday’s hearing that they wanted to be reassured Barra had taken critical steps to ensure a similar crisis never happen again. Barra’s April appearance before Congress was ridiculed by late-night comedians and “Saturday Night Live” because she deflected many questions until an internal investigation was complete.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., had said in April that “woman to woman,” she was “disappointed” in Barra. This time she offered significant praise for Barra’s handling of the issue and for endorsing a bill that will require companies to repair rental cars before they are sold or rented.

Barra was calm and collected during her two hours of testimony and answered nearly all questions directly. But she wasn’t the target of some of the most difficult questions, as much of the hearing focused on GM’s General Counsel Michael Millikin and actions of the automaker’s legal department.

Barra emphasized GM is committed to being the “industry leader” in safety, pointing to the company’s massive recalls as a sign the company is putting safety ahead of the expense of recalls. “We’re taking action ... and we’re not shying away from anything,” she told reporters after the hearing, adding that she hadn’t spoken to federal prosecutors.

She stood her ground: She declined to expand the victim compensation fund to other vehicles recalled for ignition problems or to endorse a pardon for a Texas woman convicted of criminal conduct after a fatal crash in Saturn Ion with a defective ignition switch. She said the other ignition problems were the result of “very different” circumstances.”

The new tone from senators came after GM spent months working to rebuild its relationships with members of Congress. Barra has made several unannounced trips to Capitol Hill to brief members of Congress.

“We all want General Motors to succeed,” Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who chairs the subcommittee that held the hearing. “There’s no one in Congress that doesn’t. This is an American company that all of us are very proud of.”

McCaskill said she would “do follow-ups on this hearing” with GM, but gave no indication that she would call Barra back to the hot seat.

Dan Hill, president of strategic relations firm Ervin|Hill Strategy Inc. said Barra was able to defend Millikin, who came under tough questions and criticism for not knowing more about the ignition switch problem and related legal issues before this February.

“Her willingness to stand by her team shows leadership; she did not waver or caveat her vote-of-confidence in Mr. Millikin or his legal team,” Hill said in a statement.

Jack R. Nerad, executive editorial director and senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book’s KBB.com, said in a statement that Barra came away “largely unscathed in the questioning, and I’m certain that is seen as a win by the top executive team at GM.”

Barra has now testified before House and Senate committees four times over the ignition switch recall that is linked to 54 crashes and 13 deaths.

In the April Senate hearing, before GM’s internal investigation was completed, Barra often said she was waiting for the report to be finished and declined to answer senators’ queries.

Boxer seemed impatient with Barra’s lack of answers in that first hearing. At one point she snapped: “You don’t know anything about anything.”

Barra left that April hearing without addressing any reporters and later issued a statement saying the Senate questions were “tough but fair.”

At the end of Thursday’s hearing, McCaskill said she suspected those who testified weren’t looking forward to another invitation to return anytime soon.

“Correct,” Barra answered.

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