Vote Underscores Bush's Loss of Influence

President Bush was confident the House would approve the $700 billion plan when he walked to the microphones yesterday morning.
President Bush was confident the House would approve the $700 billion plan when he walked to the microphones yesterday morning. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
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By Dan Eggen and Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 30, 2008

At 7:34 a.m. yesterday, President Bush strode onto the south driveway of the White House and urged Congress to approve his $700 billion Wall Street rescue package. "With the improvements made to this bill, I'm confident that members of both parties will support it," he predicted.

Less than seven hours later, the plan had gone down to a stinging defeat in the House, in large part the result of opposition from more than 100 members of Bush's Republican Party.

The vote marked the biggest legislative defeat of Bush's tenure and underscored the vanishing influence of a president who could once bend a pliant Congress to his will on wars, taxes, surveillance and a host of other high-profile initiatives.

The defeat also brought into focus some of the key characteristics of Bush's troubled second term, including his weakened hold on his party, his tendency to delegate major responsibilities to aides and his continued reliance on alarmist rhetoric in an effort to get his way. Bush left much of the sales job for the rescue plan to Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., and his last-minute warnings that "our entire economy is in danger" appeared to have little impact on the debate.

"I was disappointed in the vote with the United States Congress on the economic rescue plan," Bush said after yesterday's vote, during a White House appearance with the president of Ukraine. "We put forth a plan that was big because we got a big problem."

He added: "Our strategy is to continue to address this economic situation head-on. And we'll be working to develop a strategy that will enable us to continue to move forward."

Several GOP strategists and lobbyists said the White House deserves considerable criticism for the way it handled legislative advocacy for the Paulson program. Some faulted the president for not personally lobbying lawmakers until the end, leaving it to Paulson, Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten and other aides. The president began calling GOP lawmakers in the House and Senate over the past few days, White House officials said.

Other Republicans said Bush gave too much leeway to Paulson, whom they consider tone-deaf to politics, in fashioning a plan that initially gave him broad powers with no oversight. "How you can let these guys design this program?" asked one former senior Bush administration official. "Of course there's going to be a blowback. . . . You don't make yourself vulnerable to being called a tool of Wall Street."

White House spokesman Tony Fratto bristled at the criticism, saying Bush "worked incredibly hard and was personally engaged" in attempts to gain approval of the bill. "This wasn't a setback for the president; this was a setback for the economy," he said. "We are trying to prevent a disaster in our economy."

John Feehery, a GOP consultant who was an aide to former House speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), said Bush "worked it as hard as he could, but he is a lame duck."

"He can say 'Trust my words,' but they are not going to trust him when they are facing voters who are against him in a month and a half," Feehery said, adding: "You have to take it on faith that by not doing this, the financial world was going to collapse. A big number of House Republicans and Democrats don't believe it."

Many officials inside the administration, particularly at the Treasury Department, had warned of the risk in involving Congress in a rescue plan, but Bush was adamant that lawmakers be involved, according to officials familiar with the debate.

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