The Bush administration is likely to provide some help to struggling Detroit automakers as early as Wednesday (17 December) but it could be as little as US$10bn, “a bridge to a bridge loan” as one report put it.

The Detroit News said the Treasury was leaning toward granting GM and Chrysler loans of about $10bn to allow them to survive into February.

An auto official told the paper the Treasury was considering “a bridge to a bridge loan” rather than the full amount sought by automakers.

GM has said it needs $4bn this month and $4bn next month, while Chrysler needs $4bn to stay in business to the end of March.

Reuters, citing lawmakers and sources, said any White House bailout from the $700bn bank rescue fund was likely to come with conditions similar to those approved last week in the House of Representatives.

A Treasury Department official was quoted as saying the agency and Detroit Three automaker executives continued to review – with The White House actively involved – financial and other information and that no decision had been made.

And US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said the government would have to be satisfied the industry could survive and compete in order to receive help.

“We would have to assure ourselves that this was a step on the path to long-term viability,” Paulson told Fox News.

It’s now thought the administration would use part of the $700bn financial sector bailout fund to keep the automakers going rather than let them slide into bankruptcy as some lawmakers have urged, suggesting they need the sort of restructuring a Chapter 11 filing would bring.

“That would be my expectation, and I think all the signals coming from the White House are that they know that bankruptcy is not an option and that (stabilisation) funds are the only recourse that they have,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, reportedly said at a news conference.

While GM and Chrysler need immediate help to maintain liquidity beyond the end of the year, Ford would like access to a credit line only in case conditions worsen.

Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, who helped boost the $14bn rescue proposal that failed to pass the Senate last week, told Reuters he, too, expected help for both GM and Chrysler to come from the bank rescue fund and suggested GM could receive about $8bn rather than the $10bn the automaker had said it needs to make it to the end of March.

Levin and two other people familiar with the administration’s thinking told the news agency they believed a decision would be made as early as Wednesday.

“The president made a deal with the House of Representatives. It passed the House, and once the president makes a deal, he’s not likely to walk away from it,” Levin said.

Automakers taking government funds would have to accept the oversight of a government-appointed ‘car czar’ who would have the authority to place a company into Chapter 11 if he or she deemed that appropriate.

Levin told Reuters the czar for the remainder of the Bush administration ending on 20 January, could be Paulson.

The news agency said Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker, who opposed the bailout but sought a last-ditch compromise in Congress, has encouraged the administration to include tougher conditions which could include faster and tougher concessions than planned by the UAW and an agreement for bondholders to convert a sizeable percentage of debt to equity to boost liquidity.

The Detroit Free Press said that any rescue larger than the $15bn currently available from the Troubled Asset Relief Programme (TARP) could be difficult. The Federal Reserve has the power to lend money to companies in emergency situations, but its chairman Ben Bernanke had told Congress he would be reluctant to make such loans.

The paper said the Treasury also could request the second $350bn tranche of the TARP that could only be blocked by a vote of Congress but several Democratic leaders have pledged to do just that, citing criticisms of how the first half of the money was spent, and it was not clear whether the incoming Obama administration would support such a move.