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Ailing US Automakers Seek Help from Bush

American automakers want more government help opening markets abroad. The heads of the nation's three biggest automobile manufacturers met with U.S. President George Bush hours before he left for a regional economic summit in Asia.

President Bush says he understands that American automakers are concerned about their access to Asian markets. Ahead of his departure for an Asian/Pacific economic summit in Vietnam, Mr. Bush said he will make clear that he wants free two-way trade.

"My message to our trading partners is: just treat us the way we treat you,” said Mr. Bush. “Our markets are open for your products and we expect your markets to be open for ours, including our automobiles."

The president invited the chief executives of General Motors, Ford, and the Chrysler unit of DaimlerChrysler to the White House to discuss foreign trade and a variety of issues facing the U.S. auto industry.

General Motors chief Rick Wagoner says the president was receptive to their complaints about what they say is an intentional undervaluing of the Japanese Yen, though he says Mr. Bush made no promises.

"We talked about some health care areas and some areas where frankly we might see it differently, exchange rate policy in particular and our strong conviction that the Japanese Yen is systematically undervalued which helps them to maintain significant trade balance surpluses in our industry,” he said. “And I can not honestly say that it appeared the president 100 percent saw it that way."

The automakers say they do not want a government bailout to offset industry losses. Instead, they want an end to remaining steel tariffs and broader action to reduce health care costs, which are now a greater portion of producing a U.S. automobile than the cost of steel.

All three manufacturers are increasing production of hybrid vehicles.

That is at the center of the president's alternative energy initiative, which is vital to breaking what he calls America's dependence on foreign oil.

"Obviously, as these automobile manufacturers begin to incorporate new technologies that will enable us to power our cars in different ways, it will make it easier for me to be able to tell the American people we are using less foreign oil. And that is in our economic interest as well as our national security interest," added Mr. Bush.

Hybrid vehicles have been especially profitable for Japanese automaker Toyota, which is now the fourth-largest vehicle manufacturer in North America with nearly 40,000 employees.