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So who’s the real leader of House Republicans? Republican Study Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (Texas)? Former RSC Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.)? Republican Policy Committee Chairman Thaddeus McCotter (Mich.)?


“When you find out, let me know,” quipped a Democratic aide after Monday’s debacle, in which two-thirds of Republicans voted against the $700 billion financial rescue package.

Shellshocked GOP leaders who had urgently and passionately argued for the deal that they had negotiated were left scrambling for answers. The best they could come up with was blaming Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for being too mean in a floor speech. That ended up offending Members of their own Conference.

“I want to assure you that was not the case,” Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) said pointedly. “We are not babies who suck our thumbs. We have very principled reasons for voting no.”

Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) also noted the rush to get something done before Rosh Hashana, the lack of plums to hand out to the minority and the difficulty of getting Members to vote for an unpopular bill weeks before an election. He ended up 10 votes shy of the 75 that he thought he would corral.

Aides blamed Members who privately said they would back the bill only to vote no. They noted that Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) failed to get a single GOP Member of the Arizona delegation to back it and that President Bush failed to line up Texas support. They also said Pelosi should have been able to find more votes on her side.

But, in the end, Members were left with disaster. Or, as Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) had called the bill just before it was voted on, a “mud sandwich.”

To be sure, GOP Members were publicly heaping more blame on Pelosi for bringing up the bill in the first place than on their own leaders. And the rank and file blamed Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson for a tone-deaf and arrogant introduction of his sweeping $700 billion package.

“This was such a terrible issue set up in such a terrible way,” said a GOP aide, calling it “a near-impossible task five weeks from an election.”

Rank-and-file Members said leadership on either side should not have been surprised by the GOP vote. Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) was stunned Democrats couldn’t deliver more of their votes. “You bring a bill of this magnitude to the floor and they don’t have the votes? That’s a pretty ugly place for leadership to be in.”

Strong GOP opposition was not a surprise, “not for anybody who’s been sitting in our conferences,” Hoekstra said.

Hoekstra said the deal in the end was too close to the original Bush administration plan that gave Paulson unprecedented power to buy assets at any price. In particular, the mortgage insurance plan that was the centerpiece of a Republican alternative — requiring Wall Street to pay for its mess — was included merely as an option.

“He’ll write them in such a way no one will ever use them,” Hoekstra said. And many GOP Members wanted to see items such as an increased Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. insurance and a suspension of mark-to-market accounting rules.

“Most of us think we need to do something,” Hoekstra said.

GOP aides also blamed House Democrats for “rookie mistakes” like not sweetening the package with items such as the $25 billion auto bailout, which they stuck on the continuing resolution, and like not having other bills left that could be used as sweeteners.

And when it looked like they were going to lose, they should have pulled the bill.

“You don’t allow a defeat,” the aide said. “Now you put all your Members on record and they’re dug in.”

But in the wake of the vote, none of the GOP leaders look good — not Boehner, the quarterback who appeared powerless on the floor to sway votes and had put everything on the line, even saying the vote would “separate the men from the boys, the girls from the women”; not Blunt, who not only is the top vote-counter but was the chief negotiator on the package that was soundly rejected by the rank and file; nor Chief Deputy Minority Deputy Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), Boehner’s most obvious challenger who nonetheless signed on to the deal and was left flailing at a press conference with a copy of Pelosi’s speech in his hand.

Boehner’s own speech wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of the bill. In addition to the “mud sandwich” remark, he said that “nobody wants to vote for this, nobody wants to be anywhere around it,” but that it was a product that “may work.”

By then, the insurgents had already taken over. Pence and McCotter came out hard against the Paulson package early and often, and Pence rallied conservatives on the floor to fight the “leviathan” of government. And Hensarling stood ever-present as a critic of the plan, arguing for a market-based solution instead of handing Paulson a $700 billion credit card.

It was obvious to Members who was holding the winning hand at the end of the day.

Leaders spent Tuesday trying to find a way out of their pickle — and perhaps a bipartisan proposal backed by McCain and Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) to increase FDIC insurance could pick up extra votes.

But if the Republican leadership team can’t regroup and do so in a hurry, the question will be who picks up the pieces.

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