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How McCain Stirred a Simmering Pot

Pelosi said Obama would speak for the Democrats. Though later he would pepper Paulson with questions, according to a Republican in the room, his initial point was brief: "We've got to get something done."

Bush turned to McCain, who joked, "The longer I am around here, the more I respect seniority." McCain then turned to Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to speak first.

Boehner was blunt. The plan Paulson laid out would not win the support of the vast majority of House Republicans. It had been improved on the edges, with an oversight board and caps on the compensation of participating executives. But it had to be changed at the core. He did not mention the insurance alternative, but Democrats did. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, pressed Boehner hard, asking him if he really intended to scrap the deal and start again.

No, Boehner replied, he just wanted his members to have a voice. Obama then jumped in to turn the question on his rival: "What do you think of the [insurance] plan, John?" he asked repeatedly. McCain did not answer.

One Republican in the room said it was clear that the Democrats came into the meeting with a "game plan" aimed at forcing McCain to choose between the administration and House Republicans. "They had taken McCain's request for a meeting and trumped it," said this source.

Congressional aides from both parties were standing in the lobby of the West Wing, unaware of the discord inside the Cabinet room, when McCain emerged alone, shook the hands of the Marines at the door and left. The aides were baffled. The plan had been for a bipartisan appearance before the media, featuring McCain, Obama and at least a firm statement in favor of intervention. Now, one of the leading men was gone.

The rest of the actors poured out of the room still highly agitated. Democrats clustered in the hall between the lobby and the Oval Office, pressing Bachus to explain what had happened to the deal. The Democrats discussed whether to go before the cameras waiting in front of the White House, but Obama refused. Without McCain next to him, he said, he would be skewered for using the White House as a backdrop. As the talk grew louder, Obama asked if they could duck into a room, and back they went to the ornate, windowless Roosevelt Room.

It was then that Paulson gingerly walked in to beg, "Don't blow this up, please." The secretary feared that Democrats would throw their hands up and declare the deal dead.

The crowd erupted in unison, all barking at Paulson that they were not the problem -- he needed to talk to his own party. Under the barrage, Paulson dropped to one knee, clasped his hands in front of his face as if he were praying and joked: "Please, please, don't blow this up. Give me some time."

"Hank," Pelosi replied, "I didn't know you were Catholic."

Staff writers Michael Abramowitz and Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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