Fear and caution ruled on the Hill

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Times Staff Writer

President Bush lobbied. Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson pleaded. Vice President Dick Cheney worked on conservative Republicans; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi coaxed liberal Democrats. Barack Obama lobbied gently. John McCain worked the phones and boasted about how effective he was.

But all that leadership failed to command much loyalty in either party Monday. When the financial rescue plan came to a vote, two-thirds of the House’s Republicans and two-fifths of its Democrats ignored their leaders’ pleas and voted no.

The surprise defeat of the Bush administration’s financial rescue plan was a product of the waning influence of a lame-duck president and the nervousness of members of Congress, whose institution is even less popular and who faced a flood of angry messages from constituents. McCain and Obama are more popular, but neither candidate embraced the bailout measure enthusiastically before the vote.


Their cautiousness, combined with the unpopularity of other senior political leaders, left rank-and-file members of Congress free to draw their own conclusions about how to react to public skepticism of the bailout, coming only five weeks before election day.

“We’re all worried about losing our jobs,” Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who voted in favor of the plan, said in a speech in the House. “Most of us say, ‘I want this thing to pass but I want you to vote for it, not me.’ ”

The rescue plan, which would have allowed the Treasury to spend as much as $700 billion to buy distressed investments from troubled financial institutions, was always going to be a hard sell.

No grass-roots constituency supported the idea. Instead, conservative Republicans protested the bill as a huge federal intrusion into private enterprise, and liberal Democrats complained that it rescued wealthy investors but didn’t give homeowners a refuge in bankruptcy to avoid foreclosure.

Members of Congress were flooded with messages from voters urging them to vote no. In the final hours before the vote, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, who is bankrolling campaigns to aid Democratic candidates, condemned the plan. Influential conservative groups such as the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks called for its defeat.

In the face of that storm, members of Congress in tight races walked away.

All seats in the House are up for grabs this year. But many members who voted no are in safe districts -- where voters are overwhelmingly conservative or liberal. That’s partly because, over years of redistricting, many districts have become politically polarized, and members from those districts have less incentive to compromise with the other party.


“They don’t face any backlash to this vote,” said congressional scholar Norman J. Ornstein. “Their constituents will say, ‘Right on.’ ”

Since at least 1990, when then-Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) led a conservative revolt against a budget plan sponsored by fellow Republicans and then-President George H.W. Bush, bipartisan compromise has been rare in the House. Instead, Republicans and Democrats have focused on sharpening their conflicts, each hoping to push the other out of power.

“When you’re counting on the minority party [to help pass a bill], that’s difficult,” said John Feehery, a former top Republican aide. “The minority doesn’t trust the majority. They don’t want to help them out.”

Pleas from a president may not work either -- especially if the president’s public standing has fallen to record lows. White House spokesmen said Bush called dozens of GOP members of Congress. His efforts appeared to bear little fruit. Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Texas) said the president called him, but the lawmaker explained that he preferred to listen to his constituents.

In such a situation, even a powerful vice president such as Cheney can no longer command votes from members of the House. “Cheney lived up to his reputation as Darth Vader . . . talking about all the terrible things that were going to happen,” said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.). “People weren’t afraid of Darth Vader.”

Nor did Republican members appear to pay much heed to their presidential nominee.

Over the weekend, aides said, McCain spoke to at least 11 House members to try and round up votes. On Monday morning, he told a rally in Ohio that his intervention had helped aid the expected deal.


Of the 11 lawmakers that the McCain campaign said the nominee talked to Saturday, seven voted for the measure, although five of those were members of the House GOP leadership. Four, including two from Arizona, did not.

The voices of angry constituents seemed to count most. “When Congress’ approval rating is so low, when the president is such a lame duck, and when your constituents are calling . . . you run,” Feehery said.

“You’ve got constituents out there that are angry about this deal on both sides,” he added. “They don’t believe anybody -- the leadership, the president, the secretary of the Treasury. They go on the Internet and find economists saying the situation isn’t really a crisis, it’s no big deal. That complicates it even further.”

Strangely, perhaps, some House members on both sides said the pressure from their leaders for a yes vote was milder than they had expected.

There was “no whipping on my side of the floor,” said Shays, who voted for the plan.

“Leadership did not go around and jam people,” agreed Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers (R-Mich.), another yes vote.

Democrats said that as the number of “yes” votes faltered, Pelosi and other Democratic leaders began trying to rustle up more support.


Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said Pelosi approached him to ask if he would reverse his vote.

“There wasn’t any arm-twisting or anything like that,” Thompson said. Pelosi could be tough, he said, but in this case “she wasn’t.”


Times staff writers Janet Hook and Peter Wallsten contributed to this report.