How the Numbers Failed the Leaders

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), left, and Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), center, head for a news conference after the House rejected the $700 billion financial rescue proposal.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), left, and Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), center, head for a news conference after the House rejected the $700 billion financial rescue proposal. (By Chip Somodevilla -- Getty Images)
By Paul Kane and Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Just before lunchtime yesterday, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and his lieutenants went through the final vote count and realized they had a problem: A rank-and-file uprising was on the verge of torpedoing a bill that had been heralded by President Bush, his top advisers and congressional leaders from both parties as the remedy for Wall Street and Main Street.

Boehner and House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), recognizing the danger of the situation, discussed whether to urge Democrats to pull the bill from the floor rather than have it go down in defeat. Instead, less than three hours later, the gavel fell on a stunning rebuke to Capitol Hill leaders on both sides of the aisle.

"We did everything possible to maximize our votes. Begged, pleaded. We didn't threaten anyone. And we had a pretty good idea of where we were," Boehner said in an interview in his office after the vote.

Just 65 House Republicans -- less than one-third of Boehner's members -- and 140 Democrats supported the bill. The vote was 12 shy of a majority, even after it was held open almost an additional 30 minutes for an effort at tepid arm-twisting. As most lawmakers headed out of town for a legislative break of undetermined length, both sides broke into partisan recriminations.

Democrats blamed the failure on Republican leaders who could not deliver on a deal that had been announced 36 hours earlier in a bipartisan fashion. "This had to be a four-legged stool," House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.) said, referring to the four House and Senate partisan caucuses. "They just ripped off one of the legs. I've never seen leadership as weak as theirs."

Republicans initially lashed out at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), accusing her of delivering a partisan speech before the vote and costing them a dozen votes. But later, in interviews after tempers cooled, GOP leaders said they had been fighting an uphill battle from the start -- too many conservatives rejected the idea of a large, taxpayer-funded intervention, and too many moderates came from swing districts where constituents were up in arms over the bailout.

Maybe a few more days of persuasion could have provided the extra lift, they said, but that would have also sent a bad signal to the markets.

"I can't think of another time we ever worked under that kind of deadline," Blunt said in an interview. "I think that trying to do this this morning was better than saying, 'Well, we can't get it done; let's just put it off till Thursday.' "

The bill's failure marked an amazing turnabout from early Sunday morning, when Blunt joined Pelosi, other congressional leaders and Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. to trumpet the bill during a 12:30 a.m. news conference. By Sunday night, after a nearly three-hour meeting of the Republican lawmakers, Boehner and Blunt declared they were behind the bill and began the process inside the Capitol known as whipping, rounding up and tallying support before a critical vote.

In private talks, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who has a close relationship with Blunt, told Republicans that they should expect about 125 to 140 votes from the Democrats, whose 235 members include dozens of liberals ideologically opposed to the bailout because it would benefit Wall Street.

Democrats said yesterday that they told Boehner they would need 80 to 100 Republicans to pass the bill. Heading into yesterday's debate, Democrats said they still thought they had enough bipartisan support. In marathon negotiations over the weekend, Democrats won a key concession on limiting executive compensation, and Republicans won a key concession on a plan to establish an alternative insurance program for less-troubled assets that might not need to be purchased by the Treasury.

Both leadership teams emphasized to their caucuses that taxpayers had been protected by these and other provisions.

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