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From left, Douglas Steenland, president and CEO of Northwest Airlines; Gary Cohn, co-president, managing director and COO of Goldman Sachs; and Richard Wagoner, chairman and CEO of General Motors listen during a Congressional committee meeting on Capitol Hill. - 


KAI RYSSDAL: Financial institutions aren't the only companies poking around Washington looking for help. Carmakers want low-interest loan guarantees...25 billion dollars worth. They say they need them to get their factories re-tooled to build hybrids and other fuel-efficient cars. Marketplace's John Dimsdale reports 25 billion might only be the beginning.

JOHN DIMSDALE: Lobbying for government help today, General Motors CEO Richard Wagoner reminded senators they promised $25 billion in low-interest loans back when Congress raised minimum fuel economy standards.

RICHARD WAGONER: Since the bill was passed last year, the capital market conditions have worsened significantly. So the ability to fund these investments from our normal cash flow from our business is significantly retarded.

Companies say private lenders are demanding 20 interest rates since prospects for profits are so dim. So car makers want government loans of four or five percent. David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research, says those loans are needed to avoid unemployment that could spread in industries from steel to car parts.

DAVID COLE: A serious failure of a Ford or GM or even Chrysler could precipitate a much more serious problem. It's probably less expensive to do something preemptively than to wait and try to clean up a big mess.

Car makers point to a government loan to Chrysler 30 years ago which the company paid back. But J.D. Foster at the Heritage Foundation says the government has no role in propping up failing businesses.

J.D. FOSTER: They have a cost structure that simply is uncompetitive. They have to get that under control. They shouldn't do that on the backs of taxpayers. They should do that on the backs of their shareholders.

Congress is likely to OK the $25 billion this month. After all, what politician wants more layoffs in the swing states of Michigan and Ohio?

In Washington, I'm John Dimsdale for Marketplace.