Midway through the White House summit on Thursday featuring America’s top political leaders, Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain was asked for his opinion about the administration’s proposed $700 billion financial rescue package. He deferred to the top House Republican, who bluntly laid out a litany of complaints.
The sudden objections caused agitation among Democrats present, who thought they had the makings of a deal. The group turned to Sen. McCain to ask if he endorsed his party’s qualms, but he dodged the question, saying only that the concerns had to be addressed, according to people familiar with the meeting. He wasn’t specific about the legislation itself.
Then, all hell broke loose. “I just sat there and let them scream,” Sen. McCain later told an adviser.
That afternoon, the theatrics of the presidential campaign collided with days of tense negotiations over the controversial bailout package designed to forestall the collapse of U.S. financial markets. At the center of the drama was Sen. McCain.
On Thursday morning, Democrats and some Republicans hammered out a tentative compromise. Then, Sen. McCain arrived in Washington, just before noon and under Secret Service escort. He met with House Republicans and listened to their complaints. He met with Senate Republicans and chided them for assenting to a deal without his input. At 4 p.m., he headed over to the White House.
In a private meeting on Capitol Hill, a group of House Republicans, with the blessing of Minority Leader John Boehner (R., Ohio), urged Sen. McCain to consider a more market-based alternative to the Bush-backed plan.
The plan was developed by a cross-section of House Republicans, including Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, and involved a complex use of government insurance to bolster the toxic assets at the heart of the financial crisis. Mr. Cantor said the goal was to come up with something that House Republicans could support.
One Republican said Sen. McCain thought the plan was a “decent idea,” but stopped short of endorsing it.
Later, Sen. McCain sat in on a lunch with Senate Republicans. Present were three senators who had supported the emerging compromise: Sens. Judd Gregg, Robert Bennett and Bob Corker. Mr. McCain, standing and sitting at various points, weighed in, according to people familiar with the meeting. He was upset his colleagues had supported the plan, which appeared likely to become law, without his input.
According to Sen. Jon Kyl, Sen. McCain told fellow Republicans to hold off making a deal. “We have got to see the details in this thing, in writing,” Sen. McCain was quoted as saying.
The president and Mr. Paulson made opening comments, with Mr. Paulson reminding attendees of the gravity of the state of financial markets. Mr. Bush turned to Ms. Pelosi, who announced that the Democrats were going to allow Sen. Obama to lead off for them. The Democratic nominee spoke for a few minutes, going over his four well-known principles for what he would consider to be crucial to the legislation.
Then Mr. Bush turned to Sen. McCain and asked if he wanted to follow. Mr. McCain said, “Actually, the longer I’m here, the more I respect seniority.” He said he would defer to the Republican congressional leaders who were present.
Mr. Boehner, the House minority leader, outlined his concerns about taxpayer protections in the legislation and then talked instead about the insurance-based alternative. At several points, the conversation became raucous, with members loudly talking over one another.
In a television interview, Sen. Obama recalled asking: “Well, do we need to start from scratch, or are there ways to incorporate some of those concerns?”
Sen. McCain didn’t answer directly. Instead, he outlined the five principles that he wanted to guide the legislation. (all emphasis added).
Nobody likes the bailout plan, but that’s part of the job; to do the unpleasant work that is necessary. Senator McCain on this occasion has shown himself unwilling or unable to do so. That’s not leadership.