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House GOP Plan: Reshape Bailout, Be Sure McCain Gets Credit

Patrick O'Connor

Demonstrators protest in front of the New York Stock Exchange against the $700bln Wall Street bailout plan on September 25. (AFP/File/Nicholas Roberts)

Congressional negotiators are back at work on a bailout deal as House Republicans pursue a two-track strategy: Shape the plan to their liking, and make sure John McCain gets some of the credit.

Aides to the House-Senate negotiating team met until 1:40 a.m. Saturday morning and are back at the Capitol now. A meeting of principals - Sens. Chris Dodd and Judd Gregg, Reps. Barney Frank and Roy Blunt - could come Saturday afternoon, with leaders still hoping for a vote before the markets open Monday.

McCain arrived back in Washington just before dawn on Saturday, and his campaign said he planned to "resume negotiations with the administration and congressional leaders from both parties to forge a bipartisan solution to our economic crisis."

Republicans are clearly worried that their presidential candidate's first effort to engage in the bailout negotiations didn't come off as well as they might have hoped - that in the public's mind, a deal was close until McCain parachuted in, a White House meeting collapsed and McCain left for the debate in Mississippi with the various factions farther from a deal than they'd been before.

House Republicans are now trying hard to recast those events.

What actually happened, they say: By not taking a stand on the modified version of the Treasury plan that Democrats, Senate Republicans and the White House seemed nearly ready to support, McCain gave House Republican the time they needed to force a better deal for taxpayers and homeowners alike.

During a brief session in the Capitol on Friday, McCain reminded a small band of Republican leaders that he had given them a political opening in the landmark legislative fight.

According to people present, McCain then told his congressional colleagues, "Now, go get something."

McCain had swept into town Thursday morning like a conquering hero, poised to save the economy - and, by turns, his presidential campaign.

Democrats derided his decision as a blatantly political - and completely unnecessary - maneuver.

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) joked that McCain's gesture reminded him of the late-comedian Andy Kaufman doing his famously understated rendition of the Mighty Mouse theme, "Here I Come to Save the Day."

"We are making very real progress," Frank said at the time. "This is a stunt. I hope people will be able to ignore it. He doesn't bring anything to it."

While McCain greeted his top allies on Capitol Hill, lawmakers were working toward a compromise deal in a bipartisan, bicameral meeting. When that meeting ended, both Dodd, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, and Sen. Bob Bennett, a Republican from Utah, said that negotiators had agreed on a plan that could pass both houses of Congress and be signed by the president.

Gregg, a Republican from New Hampshire, told Politico Friday that the compromise wouldn't have come together so quickly if Democrats didn't know that McCain was on his way. "We wouldn't have had as much movement [Thursday] as we did have, if he hadn't come to town and some of our colleagues on the other side of the aisle wanted to upstage him," Gregg said.

With the deal struck, Republicans in the House believed that the trap was set, not so much for McCain as for their own leader, Ohio Rep. John A. Boehner.

As House Republicans saw it, Democrats and the White House were close to a deal and just needed McCain to sign on so they could roll Boehner under the bus and claim a bipartisan victory.

Boehner himself had emerged from a brief meeting with McCain earlier that day in his Capitol office unsure what the presidential candidate would do.

But if the Democrats and the White House were ready for a game of "ganging up on Boehner" - as the minority leader said later - McCain didn't play along.

At the White House, Bush beseeched lawmakers to join him in announcing progress toward a deal. According to one report, the president asked, "Can't we just all go out and say things are OK?"

But McCain said little during the White House meeting. And when it ended, neither he nor Bush nor Barack Obama said anything at all to the reporters waiting outside in the rain.

In a statement, the McCain campaign said the meeting "was spent fighting over who would get the credit for a deal and who would get the blame for failure."

Most important: "There was no deal or offer yesterday that had a majority of support in Congress."

That play gave Boehner, whose rank and file was in an open revolt against the Bush administration plan, more room and more time to operate.

It's not what House Republicans were expecting. McCain has a strained relationship with many of his GOP colleagues, some of whom view him as a political opportunist who chooses personal glory over partisan loyalty.

Asked before the White House meeting if McCain would have any effect on the debate over this bailout, Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) said, "No."

"The Democrats and the White House want everyone to go down there and have a big group hug," Brady said of that meeting. "I'm not so sure he's going to be a part of that group hug."

Boehner himself had said he didn't know what whether McCain could help.

Republicans acknowledge that McCain's first trip back to Washington didn't shift votes in either direction; even they acknowledge that they don't know what, exactly, their presidential candidate thinks of the Treasury plan. But they credit McCain with creating an opening they didn't have before.

"[The trip] played a very important role in elevating this to a serious crisis for most voters," Putnam said.

Gregg agreed, saying that the trip focused voters' attention on the financial problem in a way that nothing else had: "People suddenly said, ‘Oh wow, this must be really, really bad if you've got both presidential campaigns . . . coming to Washington," Gregg said.

On Friday morning, McCain paid Boehner a follow-up visit in the leader's large Capitol suite. They were joined by Putnam, Blunt - the GOP whip - and his chief deputy, Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, who played a central role crafting the Republicans' alternative.

The presidential candidate told the assembled congressional leaders that he was initially skeptical about Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's grave economic warnings, but that he became convinced after a series of briefings that the need was very real. Congress had to pass something over the weekend, McCain said.

But he told the group that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had a choice: She could either allow her negotiators to craft a package that Republicans would accept, or she could make it a partisan vote by attaching the plan to a must-pass stop-gap funding bill that lawmakers from both parties would be compelled to support.

If she chose the latter category, McCain told the Republican leaders that they could vote against the hugely unpopular measure and he would help them make that vote a campaign issue on the trail.

Before he left, he told the group that he needed to fly to Mississippi for the first presidential debate, so he wouldn't be sticking around either way.

But, he told them, "You guys need a negotiator."

That same morning, Boehner tapped Blunt to fill the role, jump-starting a legislative conversation that had stalled; just the night before, House Republicans had refused to send a representative to a meeting with Paulson, the Democrats and Senate Republicans.

Democrats now say it's possible that deal could come together in time for votes Sunday. Blunt, appearing on Fox News on Saturday morning, seemed less optimistic and warned that Monday's market opening could yet come and go without a deal.

"I think if it doesn't happen on Sunday, it won't happen until Thursday or Friday," he said. "At the end of the day, it'd be better to get it done right than get it done quickly."


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