Bailout Posturing: Here We Go Again?

Contrary to the expectations of the White House, Congressional leaders from both parties and the media, a $700 billion financial rescue package plan, which was agreed to by Democratic and Republican leaders in the House (and Senate) over the weekend, has failed on a 228-205 vote. (Even after the vote was held open after time had expired for about 20 minutes while Speaker Nancy Pelosi, G.O.P. Leader John Boehner and others huddled with each other and tried – in vain – to twist enough arms to reverse the result.)

So what now?

For now, the plan still isn’t dead. There is talk of another vote (later in the week – maybe Thursday) under the theory that leaders were caught off-guard by this initial failure and might be more aggressive in seeking votes the second time around. Also, the threat of a market meltdown – the Dow plummeted as the vote progressed – might make House members think twice about killing the package once and for all. At the moment, the Dow is down about 500 points. (It’s been erratic for the past hour.) Traders, it seems, are not convinced that the plan is dead yet. If they were, the chattering consensus seems to be, the Dow would drop by more than 1,000 points.

But there are some ominous signs for those hoping that the House will speedily change its mind. Instead, partisan finger-pointing – which was largely absent as the compromise plan was crafted over the weekend – has re-emerged.

Republican leaders just held a press conference at which they accused Speaker Nancy Pelosi of single-handedly killing the bill by delivering a “partisan” speech on the House floor moments before the vote began. Minority Leader John Boehner said that she “poisoned” the atmosphere and that her partisanship caused soft Republican supporters to “go south” at the last minute. G.O.P. Whip Roy Blunt said that Republican leaders believed they had 12 more votes for the plan than they actually produced, and that those votes were lost when members heard Pelosi’s speech. One hundred and thirty-two Republicans ended up opposing the plan, with just 66 supporting it.

Pelosi’s speech included criticism of the Bush administration for failing to produce a second economic stimulus plan, but she also appealed to bipartisanship, imploring Republicans to help “send a message of confidence to the markets.” To Democrats, the bill’s failure is the fault of the G.O.P., given that two-thirds of the Republican conference opposed it. By contrast, 140 Democrats supported it, with 95 votes against. If the bill is going to pass on the second try, Democrats believe, it’s up to the G.O.P.

So it seems that we’re in for a few days of intense public posturing, with each party blaming the other for the plan’s failure, and equally intense backroom politicking. President Bush and administration officials could play a role in trying to win over Republicans votes, but it’s an open question how much clout the president has, even with his fellow Republicans. The threat of a calamitous market plunge could also sway House members who voted no today. Of course, if public opinion against the plan hardens in the next few days, those who opposed it today may feel emboldened to kill it for good later this week.

Then there’s the McCain question: What role, if any, will the G.O.P. presidential nominee take – especially after making such a show of throwing himself into the negotiations last week? Will he return to Washington in an effort to shore up Republican support and save the plan? Or will he rally to the defense of the Republicans who opposed it today and make opposition to the bailout package (which Barack Obama seems to support) the centerpiece of his campaign? Or, this time, will he just keep his distance?

Bailout Posturing: Here We Go Again?