After months of dithering as factories closed and unemployment figures rose, on house of Congress has finally taken a step to shore up the real economy of the United States. By a vote of 237 to 170, the House of Representatives on Wednesday night endorsed a $14 billion bailout plan for domestic automakers that have been brought to the brink of bankruptcy by their own shortsightedness and a global economic meltdown.

The measure enacted by the House should keep General Motors, Ford and Chrysler solvent — and an estimated three million workers who faced the threat of jobs losses in their positions — through March, when it is expected that the administration of President-elect Barack Obama and a new Congress will present a long-term plan for restoring the fiscal health and competitiveness of an industry that remains the backbone of American manufacturing.

Even President Bush acknowledges that this disappointing but essential legislation is needed now to avoid massive and potentially irreversible layoffs and plant closings. Yet, only 32 Republicans joined 205 Democrats in backing the Auto Industry Financing and Restructuring Act. One hundred and fifty Republicans and 20 Democrats voted “no.”

Most of the Republican “yes” votes for the measure came from representatives of states that still have GM, Ford and Chrysler plants — Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Missouri and New York.

Most of the Democratic “no” votes came from southern and western “Blue Dog” Democrats, many of whom represent states where foreign automakers have set up non-union plants.

Fiscal conservatism was not an issue, as many of the Republicans who voted against the auto bailout had voted for Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson’s dramatically larger bank bailout legislation in September. Similarly, some of the most ardent Democratic backers of the auto bailout were outspoken critics of Paulson’s plans for Wall Street.

While the auto bailout won in the House, the high level of Republican opposition does not bode well for advocates of the measure as it heads to the Senate, where Republicans say they will try to block it — and where the chamber’s filibuster rules could allow a minority of members to prevent a vote on the bailout.

“I don’t think the votes are there on our side of the aisle,” says Ohio Senator George Voinovich, one of few Republican supporters of moves to preserve domestic auto companies and the family-supporting jobs they provide in communities across the industrial heartland.

If the Senate kills the bill, the headline may yet be: “GOP to American Auto Workers and Car Dealers: Drop Dead.”