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How McCain Stirred a Simmering Pot

"No one knew where he was going," one of the aides said.

Boehner, who had initially greeted Paulson's plan with some warmth, faces a brewing battle next year for the party leadership. Conservatives were making it no secret that they were thinking of backing House Deputy Republican Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) in a challenge to Boehner, and Paulson's request for $700 billion was not making matters better.

On Wednesday afternoon, Boehner appointed a new working group, led by Cantor, Ryan and Republican Study Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), and including some moderates, to see if they could put together an alternative proposal. McCain's impending arrival shifted that effort into high gear. By the time McCain arrived in Boehner's office Thursday, the principles of a new plan were ready.

According to Republican aides, McCain was in Boehner's office when the announcement of a deal crossed their BlackBerrys. Rep. Spencer Bachus (Ala.), the House Republicans' representative in the talks, stumbled into the meeting to be peppered by participants with incredulous questions.

It was Ryan who made it most clear that there really was no deal. The core of Paulson's plan -- using $700 billion in taxpayer money to buy distressed assets from failing financial firms -- had to be changed, he told McCain. Instead, banks should have to pony up money for a new federally administered insurance program, like the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Banks suffering from mortgage defaults would then be able to draw funds from the insurance pool to remain solvent.

It was not a new idea, White House and Treasury officials said. Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke had considered a similar option and rejected it. For one thing, asking banks teetering on the edge of bankruptcy to pay into the insurance fund would be like asking a patient facing heart surgery to buy health insurance before being wheeled into the operating room. The banks would be too weak to pay, and the cost of the insurance would be so high, drawing on the fund after a round of mortgage foreclosures would merely be repaying the banks what they had paid in.

Besides, one Treasury official said, it would do nothing to address the problem at hand. Banks would have no more money than they do now to lend. And they would still be holding the bad assets that are making it impossible for them to borrow.

Paulson made those points Wednesday at a contentious meeting with House Republicans. But Ryan convinced McCain that the idea had to be taken seriously to bring House Republicans on board.

"McCain has been trying to help the House guys, trying to get their ideas into the broader bill," said a senior Republican Senate aide. "If McCain can do that, he can bring 50 to 100 House Republicans to the bill. That would be a big damn deal."

McCain and Graham made just that point at the Tex-Mex lunch, but McCain also spoke in the starkly personal terms of a presidential candidate in trouble: "You all put me on the hook for $700 billion," he told his colleagues, according to an aide familiar with the lunch.

The breakdown was serious enough that word reached Paulson. Just 25 minutes before the scheduled meeting at the White House, Paulson phoned House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to alert her to trouble, according to a Senate Democratic leadership aide. When congressional leaders converged on the White House, the Democrats peeled off into the Roosevelt Room to discuss the revolt over the insurance plan. President Bush was kept waiting, something he has always hated.

After the cameras left the Cabinet room, Bush thanked everybody for their spirit of cooperation and said he knew it was not an easy vote. He knew elements still needed to be worked out and said he wanted to go around the table to hear people's views.

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