WASHINGTON - Vice President Dick Cheney yesterday blamed Congress for failing to bail out the auto industry, saying the White House was forced to step in to save U.S. car companies.

In a televised interview, Cheney said the economy was in such bad shape that the car companies might not have survived without the $17.4 billion in emergency loans that President George W. Bush approved on Friday.

"The president decided specifically that he wanted to try to deal with it and not preside over the collapse of the automobile industry just as he goes out of office," Cheney said in an interview broadcast on "Fox News Sunday."

Lawmakers "had ample opportunity to deal with this issue and they failed," Cheney said. "The president had no choice but to step in."

Congress rejected an auto-bailout package after many Republicans and some Democrats opposed it. Some said U.S. auto companies would be better off if they were required to reorganize through bankruptcy.

Cheney leaves office Jan. 20 as one of the most powerful, if unpopular, vice presidents in recent history. He played a key role in many of Bush's major policy decisions and, in the interview, was unapologetic in his review of the past eight years.

He staunchly defended the Bush administration's use of executive power in the fight against terrorism and disagreed with calls to limit presidential authority. "If you think about what Abraham Lincoln did during the Civil War, what FDR did during World War II. They went far beyond anything we've done in a global war on terror," the vice president contended.

Cheney said he was unconcerned about polls showing him as unpopular, saying that people who spend too much time reading polls "shouldn't serve in these jobs."

He offered a somber assessment of the economic challenges facing the incoming Obama administration, saying there is a growing consensus that government action will be needed next year to help revive the economy. But he declined to judge the economic-stimulus plan that Obama is considering because the program has yet to be announced.

Obama and his team are working to come up with details of a plan to pump up the economy with $850 billion or more in government spending over the next few years. Their goal is to create or save 3 million jobs in the next two years.

"I'd want to see what they're going to spend it on," Cheney said. Cheney said he:

_ Expects the Republican Party to rebound from this year's election defeats, but is unsure whether Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin will lead the comeback as the party's nominee for president in 2012.

_ Thinks Osama bin Laden is alive, but questioned whether he is still effectively running al Qaeda.

_ Did not regret having used the f-word in an exchange with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., on the Senate floor in June 2004. "I thought he merited it at the time," Cheney said with a chuckle in the interview. "And we've since, I think, patched over that wound and we're civil to one another now." *