How McCain Stirred a Simmering Pot
Saturday, September 27, 2008
When Sen. John McCain made his way to the Capitol office of House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) just past noon on Thursday, he intended to "just touch gloves" with House Republican leaders, according to one congressional aide, and get ready for the afternoon bailout summit at the White House.
Instead, Rep. Paul D. Ryan (Wis.), the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, was waiting to give him an earful. The $700 billion Wall Street rescue, as laid out by Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., was never going to fly with House Republicans, Ryan said. The plan had to be fundamentally reworked, relying instead on a new program of mortgage insurance paid not by the taxpayers but by the banking industry.
McCain listened, then, with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), he burst into the Senate Republican policy luncheon. Over a Tex-Mex buffet, Sens. Robert F. Bennett (Utah) and Judd Gregg (N.H.) had been explaining the contours of a deal just reached. House Republicans were not buying it. Then McCain spoke.
"I appreciate what you've done here, but I'm not going to sign on to a deal just to sign the deal," McCain told the gathering, according to Graham and confirmed by multiple Senate GOP aides. "Just like Iraq, I'm not afraid to go it alone if I need to."
For a moment, as Graham described it, "you could hear a pin drop. It was just unbelievable." Then pandemonium. By the time the meeting broke up, the agreement touted just hours before -- one that Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), the No. 3 GOP leader, estimated would be supported by more than 40 Senate Republicans -- was in shambles.
An incendiary mix of presidential politics, delicate dealmaking and market instability played out Thursday in a tableau of high drama, with $700 billion and the U.S. economy possibly in the balance. McCain's presence was only one of the complicating factors. Sen. Barack Obama played his part, with a hectoring performance behind closed doors at the White House. And a brewing House Republican leadership fight helped scramble allegiances in the GOP.
It is unclear whether the day's events will prove to be historically significant or a mere political sideshow. If the administration and lawmakers forge an agreement largely along the lines of the deal they had reached before McCain's arrival Thursday, the tumult will have been a momentary speed bump. If the deal collapses, the recriminations spawned that day will be fierce.
But if a final deal incorporates House Republican principles while leaning most heavily on the accord between the administration, House Democrats and Senate Republicans, all sides will be able to claim some credit -- even if the legislation is not popular with voters.
"If there is a deal with the House involved, it's because of John McCain," Graham, one of the Arizonan's closest friends in the Senate, said yesterday.
In truth, McCain's dramatic announcement Wednesday that he would suspend his campaign and come to Washington for the bailout talks had wide repercussions.
Democrats, eager to reach a deal before McCain could claim credit, hunkered down and made real progress ahead of his arrival. Conservative Republicans in the House reacted as well, according to aides who were part of the talks.
The Republican Study Committee, an enclave of House conservatives, had already begun turning against the Paulson plan. When McCain announced his return, the conservatives feared he would forge an agreement largely along Paulson's lines, with slight alterations and the GOP leadership's blessing.