GM chief meets lawmakers to calm anger over cuts

General Motors CEO and Chairman Mary Barra on Wednesday kicked off two days of high-stakes meetings with lawmakers as she defends her company’s plans to close up to four U.S. factories and lay off almost 15,000 employees.

Barra on Wednesday met with Ohio Sens. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownOn The Money: Dems set Tuesday vote on Trump's emergency declaration | Most Republicans expected to back Trump | Senate plots to avoid fall shutdown drama | Powell heading before Congress Brown, Rubio trade barbs over ‘dignity of work’ as Brown mulls presidential bid Harry Reid says he won’t make 2020 endorsement until after Nevada caucus MORE (D) and Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanTexas senator introduces bill to produce coin honoring Bushes GOP Green New Deal stunt is a great deal for Democrats Steel lobby's PR blitz can't paper over damaging effects of tariffs MORE (R), and Ohio Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) John RyanTim Ryan ‘seriously considering’ 2020 bid Baseball legend Frank Robinson, first black manager in MLB, dies at 83 House Democrat warns ethics committee about Steve King promoting white nationalism website MORE (D), who are fighting to prevent GM from closing its Lordstown, Ohio, factory. The company plans to shutter that plant in March, jeopardizing 1,600 jobs in northeast Ohio.

Her packed schedule also included meeting with Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDon’t look for House GOP to defy Trump on border wall GOP Green New Deal stunt is a great deal for Democrats National emergency declaration — a legal fight Trump is likely to win MORE (D-N.Y.) and Democratic Reps.-elect Rashida Tlaib, Elissa SlotkinElissa SlotkinHere are the lawmakers who will forfeit their salaries during the shutdown The 15 Democrats who voted against Pelosi House elects Pelosi to second Speakership MORE and Andy LevinAndrew (Andy) LevinDems introduce bill to take gender-specific terms out of tax code to make it LGBT-inclusive On The Money: Trump touts China actions day after stock slide | China 'confident' on new trade deal | GM chief meets lawmakers to calm anger over cuts | Huawei CFO arrested GM chief meets lawmakers to calm anger over cuts MORE from Michigan. During her two-day visit, she is also meeting with lawmakers from Maryland.

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Barra's visit is a very public step in what promises to be an arduous battle for the iconic American automaker as it looks to tamp down the backlash from politicians, including President TrumpDonald John TrumpAverage tax refunds down double-digits, IRS data shows White House warns Maduro as Venezuela orders partial closure of border with Colombia Trump administration directs 1,000 more troops to Mexican border MORE, over the planned cuts.

Barra walked into a lion’s den on Capitol Hill amid widespread public anger. Lawmakers and Trump have floated proposals that would block GM from its cuts or even punish the company if it follows through.

She strolled to the microphones soon after her meeting with the Ohio lawmakers and pledged to do what she could to relocate Lordstown workers to other plants in Ohio or the broader region. Barra also insisted that the downsizing would help keep the company competitive and a leader in the industry.

But during her brief remarks, Barra was quickly heckled by a worker from the region.

Jimmy Dahman of Canfield, Ohio, just outside of Lordstown, confronted the GM chief on why she would lay off friends of his who worked at the plant just before the holidays.

“We could understand it if they were really in fiscal trouble and had to consolidate,” Dahman told reporters after the conference. “But their profits are up.”

Barra sought to address those questions.

“It’s incredibly difficult to make these types of decisions, so our focus is on the GM team members that are impacted, making sure they understand all of their opportunities,” Barra said in response to a similar question from a reporter.

GM has been scrambling to defend its plans, announced last week, to halt production at auto assembly factories in Lordstown; Detroit-Hamtramck, Mich.; and Oshawa, Ontario, and parts plants in Warren, Mich., and White Marsh, Md.

The company said the decision to idle those plants and layoff 15 percent of its salaried workforce would help it adapt to a massive shift in consumer automobile preferences.

All of the targeted plants assemble or make parts for sedans GM plans to scrap next year as it shifts focus to more popular light trucks, SUVs and electric cars.

“They really are navigating an obstacle course at the moment,” said a D.C. public relations executive who worked on Capitol Hill. “They’re trying to ensure that they can accurately and clearly explain their actions.”

GM did not respond to requests for comment.

But lawmakers have made it clear they would expect answers from the company and efforts to protect workers.

“It’s important for GM and Mary Barra to have very serious conversations with members,” Rep. Debbie DingellDeborah (Debbie) Ann DingellOvernight Health Care — Sponsored by America's 340B Hospitals — Push for cosponsors for new 'Medicare for all' bill | Court lets Dems defend ObamaCare | Flu season not as severe as last year, CDC says Bill Clinton jokes no one would skip Dingell's funeral: 'Only time' we could get the last word Democrats seek cosponsors for new 'Medicare for all' bill MORE (D-Mich.), a former GM executive, said in a statement. “Honestly, they should be having these critical conversations more often, so we can keep manufacturing jobs in the U.S.”

Brown and Portman had both blasted GM after it announced the decision to discontinue several sedans, including the Chevrolet Cruze, the sole vehicle assembled at the Lordstown plant.

The Ohio senators said Wednesday they pressed Barra to assign one of GM’s new electric models to Lordstown, saving a plant that’s already lost more than two-thirds of its workforce, but is still an important employer in the region.

“We expect General Motors now to stand with this workforce and give them a chance,” Portman told reporters after the meeting. “We want one or more of those [electric] models to be built in Lordstown, Ohio. That’s where it belongs.”

“They ought to build cars,” Brown added. “We stand with the community to get something in this plant and keep thousands of GM jobs.”

The stakes in the fight are high for both sides.

GM says it is fighting to stay competitive in the auto industry, while lawmakers could face stark electoral consequences if a major company pulls out of their states.

Barra and GM have worked to stay ahead of the backlash.

The meetings with lawmakers this week will be behind closed doors, allowing the GM chief to avoid a more public grilling for now.

But even as Barra makes her pitch to lawmakers, the president may pose a tougher challenge.

Trump has made reviving the struggling U.S. auto sector a centerpiece of his economic agenda. He personally warned Barra not to close down the Ohio plant. Many of the plants are in the industrial Midwest, in states that were crucial to Trump’s 2016 path to victory.

GM’s critics also face an uphill battle to save those jobs, with the company unlikely to shift gears as it struggles to weather a massive shock to the industry.

“You need to show your constituents that you will go to the ends of the Earth to keep them from closing that plant or facility,” the public relations executive who spoke to The Hill said.

But the PR executive said there may be little lawmakers might be able to do. “Despite the economics of it, I think there’s very little that can be said that will keep these plants open.”