Debate Still in Limbo as Democrats Blame McCain For Interrupting Process

By Michael D. Shear and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 26, 2008

The first debate between John McCain and Barack Obama, scheduled for tonight, remained in limbo last night after the presidential candidates left a White House meeting without a deal on a $700 billion economic rescue plan.

Democrats immediately blamed McCain for disrupting the effort at compromise, saying his decision to suspend his campaign and return to Washington shifted the klieg lights of the White House contest to the tense and delicate congressional negotiations.

Those discussions, which had appeared promising early in the day, culminated in the late-afternoon meeting held by President Bush. But instead of producing a joint statement of success, McCain and Obama slipped out of a gathering that those present described as contentious and unproductive.

"What this looked like to me was a rescue plan for John McCain for two hours," said an angry Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), who had all but declared the deal done earlier in the day. "To be distracted for two to three hours for political theater doesn't help."

In interviews after the meeting, Obama pointed a finger at his rival for the faltering talks, saying on CNN that "when you start injecting presidential politics into delicate negotiations, you can actually inject more problems, rather than less."

His spokesman Bill Burton was more blunt, accusing McCain of turning "a national crisis into an occasion to promote his campaign. It's become just another political stunt, aimed more at shoring up the senator's political fortunes than the nation's economy."

In response, senior McCain adviser Steve Schmidt accused Obama of playing politics, saying the negotiations had been far from resolved and challenging the Democratic nominee to "publish the list of members of Congress who were going to vote for this. Because in reality, there is not a list of a majority of Democrats and Republicans who are willing to vote for it."

McCain said he is "hopeful" that a deal can be reached soon, despite opposition from many House Republicans who have consistently balked at the bailout cost and produced a far different proposal in the 11th hour yesterday.

"There are a variety of concerns, I think a lot of them have been satisfied," McCain said on ABC's "World News Tonight" after the meeting. "And I believe and I'm hopeful that we can satisfy all of them and move forward very quickly. They are aware of the urgency."

Obama and McCain both held out hope that they could still meet in Oxford, Miss., tonight for their long-scheduled first debate as they settled in to overnight in Washington. "I think he knows that I'm going to be there," Obama said in his own appearance on ABC. But McCain's campaign said that no travel decisions had been made as of last night.

"I understand how important this debate is and I am hopeful," McCain said on ABC News.

The independent Commission on Presidential Debates said yesterday that it is "moving forward" with its plans for the face-off.

The White House meeting was the result of McCain's startling announcement Wednesday that he would cease campaigning and return to Washington, urging Bush to convene a summit to address the financial crisis. Bush did so, informing the nation in an address Wednesday night, and inviting Obama and McCain to attend.

Yesterday's photo opportunity amounted to Bush's first public appearance with McCain since May, when the two briefly shook hands on a tarmac at the Phoenix airport. The Republican nominee has sought to distance himself from the president, whose approval rating has touched new lows in recent polling, and campaign aides have said they have no plans to ask Bush to appear on the campaign trail.

McCain, Obama, administration officials and congressional leaders had hoped to emerge together from the West Wing to deliver a forceful joint statement that would at least show a display of unity behind the principle of a massive federal intervention in the financial markets.

McCain's "Straight Talk Air" landed at Reagan National Airport just after noon, and his motorcade headed toward the Senate. But even before his charter plane took off from Newark, senior Democrats and Republicans at the Capitol were already announcing that a deal in principle had been reached.

That declaration turned out to be premature, as McCain's colleagues in the House objected to the ideas presented and arrived at the meeting adamant that they had never signed on to a deal.

At the White House, the gathering turned contentious when House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) brought up a new set of principles that conservative House Republicans had been laid out earlier in the day.

Boehner's move was received poorly by Obama and the other Democrats, who quickly pressed McCain to say whether he supported Boehner's position, according to a detailed account of the meeting. McCain declined to commit, one source said.

In a statement late last night, McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said the GOP nominee "did not attack any proposal or endorse any plan," adding that Democrats "allowed Senator Obama to run their side" and that the meeting "quickly devolved into a contentious shouting match." The statement also said that McCain plans to return to Capitol Hill today to work toward a bipartisan solution.

For much of yesterday, McCain shuttled between meetings and his Senate office, but rarely came close to the Capitol suites and committee rooms where the talks were taking place. He had returned to his Crystal City condominium by 6 p.m., where aides said he continued to work the phones in support of the deal.

Earlier, McCain had emerged from his office in the Russell Senate Office Building to a crush of reporters, saying nothing as he made his way to Boehner's office. In tow were a trio of his closest allies, Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), as well as top campaign aides Rick Davis and Mark Salter.

Boehner and McCain discussed the bailout plan, but Republican leadership aides described the conversation as somewhat surreal. Neither man was familiar with the details of the proposal being pressed by House conservatives, and up to the moment they departed for the White House yesterday afternoon, neither had seen any description beyond news reports.

At 1:25 p.m., McCain left Boehner's office through a back door, walking across the Capitol's rotunda to the applause of tourists. Graham conceded the group knew little about the plan the nominee had come to Washington to try to shape.

McCain ducked into the ornate Mansfield Room on the Senate side of the Capitol for lunch with colleagues. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, his chief economic adviser, met separately with the House Republicans' top four leaders. But aides said Holtz-Eakin did little of the talking. Instead, he was told in no uncertain terms that the deal touted in the morning had next to no support among the House Republican rank-and-file.

Despite the GOP nominee's pledge to suspend electioneering, the presidential campaign continued yesterday.

Democrats attacked the McCain campaign for declaring what they called a false truce, pointing to the television appearances of McCain campaign domestic policy adviser Nancy Pfotenhauer, who has been attacking Obama as taking undue credit for crisis management and legislative deal-making.

"This is maybe perhaps part of the pattern that we've seen before where Senator Obama would claim that the housing bill came out of his committee -- and he didn't even sit on the committee," she told Fox News.

As promised, aides said McCain's campaign ads were ordered off the air yesterday, though many remained on the air as stations struggled to comply with the last-minute decision.

"It is not a flip-the-switch kind of proposition," said Evan Tracey of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks ad spending. "McCain is doing everything they can in their power to take these spots down."

Schmidt accused Obama of "swooping in" to buy up the advertising time that McCain had relinquished. Without offering proof, he said the Democrat was acting in a "predatory fashion" at a time when McCain sought to take a step back from politics. "It is an example, once again, of Senator McCain putting his country first, whereas Senator Obama puts Senator Obama first, which is an essential contrast," he said.

Obama spokesman Hari Sevugan said of the McCain campaign: "They haven't suspended the rest of their campaign, so it's not surprising they haven't suspended their lies, either."

Staff writers Robert G. Kaiser, Paul Kane, Lori Montgomery and Dan Eggen contributed to this report.

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