Not since its all-out push behind the controversial package on comprehensive immigration reform last year has the Bush White House expended so much political clout on Capitol Hill. And not since the Adminstration’s efforts to secure that comprehensive immigration package has something the Administration worked so hard on gone down in flames the way the financial bailout package did yesterday. No less than 133 of the 198 House Republicans joined with 95 Democrats to defeat the package favored by the president, Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, and the congressional leadership of both parties in the House.
Given the effort put forth by the president’s team to secure passage, few could accuse former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for pronouncing the 228-to-205 vote to kill the bailout “the last gasp” of a failed Administration.
The thumbs-down on the $700 million bailout came less than an hour after Acting Press Secretary Tony Fratto briefed my colleagues and me at the White House on the campaign for passage from their end of Pennsylvania Avenue. As he told us, “Our Legislative Affairs team and Treasury’s Legislative Affairs team have been up on the Hill for almost around the clock for the past couple of weeks. They have a very good sense of which members out there are undecideds; which ones are leaning opposed; which ones are solidly opposed. And so they put together the list for the President to identify people that he can be persuasive with, and what their concerns were, and that maybe he can address them, and maybe if he learns a little bit more about their concerns if he can direct his staff at Treasury or elsewhere to get back with them or work with their staff before the vote so that they can make an informed vote. Maybe their concerns are easily addressed and he wanted to be able to speak to them personally that way.”
Fratto went on to say that the vice president and Secretary Paulson also made calls — “probably on the order of 40 or 50 names combined.”
As for the calls Bush made, Fratto said that he “had a list of a couple dozen members. I’m not sure how far he was able to get through that list. But reporting back from those calls was — you know, some people committed to voting for the bill, others remain skeptical. The president promised them that the questions that they have, we’ll try to address them, try to get them more information. We’ve tried to do this with lots of members at various different levels. There still are questions out there, and we’re not surprised that there’s skepticism about the bill.”
Although he said, “We will not take a single vote for granted,” and conceded that “there are very legitimate concerns and questions that Members have,” Fratto also predicted victory in the House in response to a question from CNN correspondent Kathleen Koch: “I think we’re going to have a sufficient vote to pass this. We’re certainly confident that we are.”
But the president’s spokesman also made it clear that the angry response from constituents to the $700 billion package was overwhelmingly critical and that there had been a problem trying to sell to the public something almost always referred to as a “bailout.” As Fratto told us, “[W]hen you call something a bailout, there aren’t a whole lot of people who are out there who are in favor of a bailout. We’re trying to change everyone’s understanding of this; that what we’re trying to do is deal with a systemic problem in our economy that is affecting Americans in their daily lives far removed from Wall Street. We need to make sure that Wall Street is healthy and functioning because we need our entire financial system functioning.
“But when you have small businesses in Illinois and Missouri who are having trouble getting overnight credit to meet their payrolls and to get credit to purchase equipment and to ship their goods, that’s a problem. That’s where our economy can grind to a halt. And that’s what we’re trying to prevent.”
In the end, the perception of a bailout that Fratto referred to — and the resultant “98% against” calls and e-mails from constituents that Rep. Michele Bachman (R.-Minn.) and other conservative Republicans told me about last week — proved too much for the Administration.
“We haven’t announced a new vote,” Maureen Beach, spokesman for House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer (D.-Md.) told me shortly after the bailout package went down. At this point, betting is strong for another vote — possibly after more intense lobbying from Members or some significant amending of the bailout package — no later than Thursday. Whether all the president’s horses and all the president’s men can put it back together again (and call it something new beside “bailout”) remains to be seen.