By Michael D. Shear and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
WEST DES MOINES, Iowa, Sept. 29 -- Reacting to the House's defeat of a $700 billion economic rescue proposal Monday, Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain called on Congress to pass a new bill and then sought to blame each other for the deadlock on Capitol Hill.
McCain found himself in a particularly awkward position after bragging about his role in building a coalition behind the rescue package yesterday morning -- hours before it was defeated.
In a curt statement after the measure was rejected and stocks plummeted, McCain said he had "worked hard to play a constructive role" in its passage and declared that "now is not the time to fix the blame."
But McCain and his top aides then accused Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress of orchestrating the bill's failure to embarrass McCain, even though many more House Republicans voted "no" than did Democrats.
"Senator Obama and his allies in Congress infused unnecessary partisanship into the process," McCain said in a statement to the media during a stop in Iowa. He took no questions.
His top domestic policy adviser, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, later said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was to blame for giving an overly partisan speech just before the vote. "Today, when it became clear that he was coming close to having a victory, they killed it," Holtz-Eakin said.
Obama spokesman Bill Burton said, "Today's inaction in Congress as well as the angry and hyper-partisan statement released by the McCain campaign are exactly why the American people are disgusted with Washington."
Yet, at a rally in Colorado, Obama highlighted his efforts to improve the plan and sought to link McCain to the economic crisis.
"I read the other day that Senator McCain likes to gamble. He likes to roll those dice. And that's okay. I enjoy a little friendly game of poker myself every now and then," Obama said. "But one thing I know is this -- we can't afford to gamble on four more years of the same disastrous economic policies we've had for the last eight."
Obama also urged lawmakers to quickly return to the table to stabilize the nation's economy. Like McCain, Obama had offered cautious support for the measure over the weekend.
"Democrats and Republicans in Washington have a responsibility to make sure an emergency rescue package is put forward that can at least stop the immediate problems that we have," Obama said. "One of the messages I have to Congress is -- get this done, Democrats. Republicans, step up to the plate."
The repercussions for the presidential campaign are uncertain and potentially dramatic as both candidates search for the right way to navigate the most severe economic crisis in decades just five weeks before Election Day.
Aides in both camps said the candidates immediately called Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. and others, but neither McCain nor Obama announced plans to return to Washington. The House adjourned for the Jewish holiday and is not scheduled to return to session until Thursday.
Obama and McCain had maneuvered to be able to claim some credit for passage of a financial rescue plan. But Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University, said McCain would feel the fallout over the House's rejection of the measure far more than Obama.
"There's nothing worse than prematurely claiming victory and then finding you've been handed a defeat," Baker said. "It's a sign of the impulsiveness that he's often been accused of."
McCain's political situation is complicated by disarray in the Republican Party. The split between Senate Republicans and President Bush, both of whom supported the plan, and House Republicans, who largely opposed it, make McCain's effort at trying to show leadership over his party all the more difficult.
In a speech in Columbus, Ohio, before learning of the bill's demise, McCain slammed Obama for "watching from the sidelines" and boasted about having played a leading role negotiating the package.
"I went to Washington last week to make sure that the taxpayers of Ohio and across this great country were not left footing the bill for mistakes made on Wall Street and evil and greed in Washington," McCain said.
"As a matter of record, Senator Obama took a very different approach to the crisis our country faced," McCain continued. "At first he didn't want to get involved. Then he was 'monitoring the situation.' That's not leadership -- that's watching from the sidelines."
The vote failed right before Obama appeared on stage in Colorado, leaving the Illinois senator to call Paulson and congressional leaders before his speech.
"They are still trying to work through this rescue package, and obviously this is a very difficult thing to do," Obama said. "Today, Democrats and Republicans in Washington have a responsibility to make sure an emergency rescue package is put forward that can at least stop the immediate problems."
Obama expressed optimism, saying: "I'm convinced that we are going to get there, but it's going to be a little rocky. It's sort of like flying into Denver: You know you're going to land, but it's not always fun going over those mountains."
Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, said neither McCain nor Obama bears any significant blame for what happened in the House. But he said, "As a general rule, anything that increases dissatisfaction with the country makes Senator McCain's campaign more challenging." Ayres added: "But he has been very adept thus far at turning a challenging environment to his advantage."
Another Republican, with White House experience, was even more critical of McCain's performance during the past two weeks, arguing that the GOP nominee's actions could not have bolstered the confidence of the American people.
"The herky-jerky insertion and the comments on the side and then taking credit this morning for passage underscores that when it comes to the economy, he just does not have the right rhythm," said the former government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely. "John seems almost tone-deaf on this stuff."
Staff writer Perry Bacon in Washington contributed to this report.