Congressional leaders have agreed on a plan that could be the biggest bailout of the nation's financial system ever. But the rank and file, facing angry constituents and a pending election, are not so sure. That means there will be white-knuckled suspense on Capitol Hill and in the markets when the House takes up the bill Monday.
It isn't clear whether the newly minted bipartisan legislation has the votes it needs to pass. With elections five weeks away, members from both parties worry that a vote to avert disaster could bring punishment at the polls. So both Democratic and Republican congressional leaders are racing to round up votes.
Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama both say they support the $700 billion bailout bill that negotiators from both parties finally agreed to Sunday. The leaders of both parties in Congress support it, too, and so does President Bush — without it, he said in a statement Sunday night, the costs to the American economy could be disastrous.
The problem is that the American public is largely leery of buying up a mountain of bad debt. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sought to assuage those concerns Sunday night.
"People have to know that this isn't about a bailout of Wall Street; it's a buy-in so that we can turn our economy around, and we can help people who are saving for their pensions and retirement," she said.
Pelosi added that the message for Wall Street in the bill is that the party is over and the era of golden parachutes for highflying Wall Street operators has ended. Indeed, there are new restrictions added to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's original plan on how much executives of bailed-out firms can get paid. There is also a new requirement that those firms eventually pay back the government whatever money may be lost from taking on their troubled mortgage-backed securities.
House Republicans prevailed in adding an optional privately funded insurance program for such assets, and that gave their leaders some political cover to switch from opposing the bailout to backing it. Minority Leader John Boehner declared that he is satisfied that taxpayers are protected.
"At the end of the day, there really are no taxpayer funds at risk here. But we do know what is at risk today, and that's our economy," Boehner said. "That's why we're supporting this bill; we've urged our colleagues to support this bill. We had a long conversation with our members because they've got concerns. They want to do the right thing on behalf of their constituents, and they want to do the right thing on behalf of their country. That doesn't always mean the word 'yes,' the word we're looking for."
"Yes" is a word many Republicans seem reluctant to utter. North Carolina's Virginia Foxx urged colleagues not to be fooled by what she called the siren song of "no choice but this choice."
"I believe there will be a band of patriot representatives here today and tomorrow who'll resist being led into making an egregious mistake for this nation," Foxx said.
And Texas Republican Michael Burgess warned that members of his party were being asked to back the bailout so it would not be just Democrats voting for it.
"We're going to be asked to vote for a bill for political cover because Democrats are too weak to stand up to their speaker," he said.
But as many as half of House Republicans' votes for the bill may be needed because many Democrats also oppose the bailout, including Oregon's Peter DeFazio.
"Despite the best efforts of the Democrats to change this plan, what we will vote on tomorrow at its core is still the Paulson-Bush plan," DeFazio said.
But others, including the lead negotiator for Senate Republicans, New Hampshire's Judd Gregg, warned that there was no alternative to passing the bailout bill.
"The downside of not doing this is potentially such a catastrophe for our nation that we don't even want to think about it. We have to think about it, but I wouldn't even want to say where it would end," he said.
All of this has left House Democrat Jerrold Nadler, whose district includes Wall Street, in a quandary:
"I'm conflicted at this point at how I'm going to vote because, on the one hand, if you vote 'yes,' you're putting a large cost on the public for something that may or may not substantially help a severe risk to the economy. On the other hand, if you vote 'no,' then you're taking off the table the only option we have," Nadler said.
First-term Kansas House Democrat Nancy Boyda, who faces a stiff re-election challenge, says she has yet to make up her mind how to vote on the bailout.
"It's damned if you do, damned if you don't, but I knew that when I took the job," she said. "I knew that when I applied for the job. So, Mother said there'd be days like this, and she was right."
If the bill does pass the House, action by the Senate is expected by midweek.