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.
Once the decision was made, Bush left much of the early negotiating to Paulson, Federal Reserve chief Ben S. Bernanke and other senior economic advisers. A visit to Capitol Hill last week by Vice President Cheney was roundly panned as counterproductive.
Then, last Wednesday night, amid growing criticism of the plan, Bush took to the airwaves to warn that "financial panic" would take hold unless the plan was approved. The comments, which some Democrats likened to the now-discounted warnings prior to the Iraq war, did little to avoid a breakdown in talks during a White House meeting between Bush and legislative leaders the next day.
Vin Weber, a former GOP congressman from Minnesota, said just before yesterday's vote that Bush's alarmist rhetoric was likely an attempt to move votes at a time when the White House and Congress are held in low public esteem.
"In order to try to get Congress to do what you wanted it to do, you had to raise the threat level," Weber said. "There's no way this would happen if people thought the consequences were not dire . . . On the other hand, you have to look at the confidence issue. It's a fine line."
Not all Republicans think Bush deserves blame for the defeat. Former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer said both Republicans and Democrats had serious ideological objections to a federal bailout. "If George Bush had 70 percent approval ratings, I think the vote would turn out the same way," he said.
Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who voted for the bill, said Bush tried his best. "This is a weakened presidency -- there is no doubt," Davis said. "But he did what he could to alert us to the danger. I don't think you can really fault him at this point."
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.