Bailout Votes and the Economy Threaten to Overwhelm Other Issues
Members of Congress headed home this weekend to try to persuade constituents that they did the right thing on the economic bailout plan, a momentous vote that injected an unpredictable new element into the climactic final weeks of the campaign season.
The legislative, economic and political drama surrounding the approval of the $700 billion effort to free up credit markets obscured some of the other bitter conflicts and notable accomplishments of the 110th Congress — the first Democrat-controlled Congress since 1995. Analysts and lawmakers were left wondering what the race-by-race impact of the bailout would be.
Will lawmakers who supported the plan that initially sparked public outrage be pummeled or praised? Will those who nearly doomed the initiative and sent the markets spiraling down suffer at the hands of Americans whose portfolios took a hit, or be rewarded as guardians of tax dollars? Will those who switched their votes during a frenzied week be labeled as flip-floppers or lawmakers who saw the error of their ways?
While the next month will clarify the political ramifications of the bailout, the high-profile end-of-session vote and the economy in general are threatening to overwhelm the campaign dialogue — overshadowing the war in Iraq, energy costs, health care and other issues that could have risen to the top of the agenda.
Despite the persistent partisan tensions, the leaders of the two parties came together in the final days of the session to put together the bailout measure at the behest of the Bush administration. But they had serious problems trying to get the rank and file to join them on a vote many lawmakers compared in magnitude to a vote for war or the 1998 vote to impeach President Clinton.
Lawmakers in both parties, particularly those considered most vulnerable to losing their seats in November, balked at the idea of rapidly agreeing just weeks away from their re-elections to spend up to $700 billion from the Treasury to help out high-finance executives.
Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, acknowledged that the proposal was a “challenger’s dream,” allowing anyone running against an incumbent to rail freely against a proposal that left a sour taste with the public.
On the initial House vote, most of the so-called vulnerable lawmakers in both parties voted no, despite pleas for help from the leadership and the White House. On Friday, many of those in the toughest races as well as House members running for Senate rejected the measure again, though a handful of embattled lawmakers switched their votes.
The fact that the party hierarchy and both presidential candidates came down so clearly in favor of the bailout could dilute its impact in the Congressional races.
Still, independent advocacy organizations and challengers themselves will still make use of it — even if they share a position with their opponent.