After a month of bitter bickering between the White House and Congress over who should take the political heat for the soaring cost of the savings and loan cleanup, Democratic congressional leaders were prepared to vote new money early Sunday morning until a single irascible representative stood up on the House floor and said, "No."
Infuriating leaders of his own party, Rep. Frank Annunzio (D-Ill.) single-handedly blocked consideration of a measure that would have provided $10 billion in additional cash for the Resolution Trust Corp. (RTC), the S&L cleanup agency.
Annunzio's action settled the issue but did not end the political finger-pointing.
Yesterday, Treasury Department officials said failure to provide the funds means the S&L cleanup will be delayed -- at a cost of several hundred million dollars. "Congress in general and the House in particular failed to meet a very clear responsibility," said Treasury Undersecretary John Robson.
Democrats retorted that if there are any delays they will be minimal and are due to the failure of the White House to fight for the additional funds. "There was absolutely no evidence that anyone in the administration turned a hand to help us gain support in the closing hours of the session," lamented House Banking Committee Chairman Henry B. Gonzalez (D-Tex.)
For more than a month, Gonzalez had told Treasury officials that House Democrats were not about to vote any extra money unless the White House came up to Capitol Hill, admitted it had underestimated the cost and asked for more money.
Although Gonzalez had all but promised the money if Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady would testify about why it was needed, Brady refused. "They wanted a sound and light show and we weren't going to give it to them," Robson insisted.
The Senate Banking Committee quickly voted $57 billion in additional thrift funds but Gonzalez said there were not enough votes to win approval from his panel in the House, where every member is up for reelection this year.
Pressure on Congress to vote the money mounted last week after the Congressional Budget Office agreed with administration projections that without additional cash, the S&L cleanup would run out of money. Bankrupt thrifts would have to be left open and the cost to the taxpayers would go up, it said.
The dispute appeared headed for a settlement after Treasury officials said the RTC could get by with a few billion dollars to keep it going through the first three months of next year -- long enough for Congress to reconvene and take up the issue free of election-eve pressure. House Democrats offered to provide $10 billion in new cash and clear the way for the RTC to borrow an additional $18.8 billion.
That was the plan when House Democratic leaders tried to bring up the measure early Sunday morning, when usual procedures had been set aside to facilitate last-minute action on dozens of bills. In the waning hours of a congressional session, any measure can be brought to the floor so long as no member of the House objects.
In a few seconds, the measure was scuttled. Annunzio's unexpected refusal brought House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) scrambling onto the floor in an unsuccessful effort to revive the measure. First, Foley and Annunzio huddled, then Foley and Gonzalez. But it was over.
Annunzio was unwilling to give the RTC more money, said his longtime aide Curt Prinz. "It was an open and shut deal. Open your wallet and shut your mouth," said Prinz.
Aides to Annunzio, Gonzalez and Foley all sought to play down any intra-Democratic disputes yesterday, but there was at least one piece of evidence to suggest that the leadership got even with Annunzio. For many months, the Italian-American congressman had pushed a bill to create a special gold commemorative coin honoring Christopher Columbus. Sometime in the early morning hours Sunday, when such innocuous measures were being shouted through the House as fast as their titles could be read, Annunzio's Columbus coin bill fell into the legislative equivalent of a black hole and died.
But that was not the end of the political posturing. Sometime after the House had killed the S&L funding bill, the Senate called the measure up and approved it on a voice vote. That allowed the senators to say they weren't responsible for any delays due to lack of funding, because they had voted for the money. And since there was no recorded vote, none of the senators had to go on record as voting for an unpopular spending bill.