Road Map: Congress Is Set for More Bailout Politics

Posted January 12, 2009 at 6:26pm

This week’s battle over the second piece of the Wall Street bailout could end up much like the first time Congress voted to rescue the financial services industry: full of drama and indignant rhetoric, but in the end, the president gets $350 billion with few strings attached.

[IMGCAP(1)]President George W. Bush formally requested the second tranche of the $700 billion in funds on Monday, following a request by President-elect Barack Obama to do so — meaning a vote could happen as early as Thursday in the Senate.

Though Democratic Senators emerged from a special Sunday caucus having toned down their criticism of the bailout, Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he is not yet sure if the Senate has the votes to

shoot down the resolution of disapproval that the chamber would have to vote on.

“We’re still working it,” Durbin said. “We’re not going to presume that we’re in a strong position, because we’re not.”

And Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said on Monday that to get the Senate’s support, the new request needed to have “guarantees of transparency, oversight and accountability” and a renewed commitment to ensuring credit for consumers and small businesses.

Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) argued that the Senate should allow the funds to be disbursed and should not punish the incoming Obama administration for the failures of the Bush administration.

“I’m terribly disappointed about the mismanagement over the last several weeks by the Bush administration of the [Troubled Assets Relief Program] funding, but that’s not enough of a reason to reject, in my view, the importance of this issue in terms of President-elect Obama’s ability to get our economy moving again,” Dodd said on Sunday.

The House appears to be looking to the Senate to go first, given the staunch opposition among House Republicans to the second installment of rescue funds.

Senate Democratic aides said that in the end, they expect the Senate to vote down an effort to nix the second $350 billion, but they will need more details from the incoming Obama team before that becomes a reality.

Though Obama financial adviser Larry Summers penned a letter to Democrats Monday promising vague improvements to accountability and executive-compensation standards and a greater focus on stopping foreclosures, lawmakers in both parties want more substance.

One senior Senate Democratic source said Dodd would be seeking further details from Obama’s Treasury secretary nominee, Timothy Geithner, and other Obama officials on specifically how the new administration would revamp oversight. With those assurances, momentum could build among Democrats to beat back the resolution of disapproval, aides and Senators indicated.

Still, Dodd reacted favorably to the Summers letter, saying in a statement: “The Obama Administration has heard these concerns and understands the need for a sharp course correction, including making significant changes to how this program is run. They agree that we need a comprehensive, coherent strategy to replace the current piecemeal approach, and have committed to using additional funds to help Main Street.”

A Senate-first strategy appears necessary because support for the bailout has cratered in the House, where Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced his opposition over the weekend, likely ensuring that a bill nixing the $350 billion would pass the House.

Boehner told CBS’ “Face the Nation” that he will not vote for the extra $350 billion.

“I think until there is a demonstrated need in our economy and a plan to address that need, I think it would be irresponsible for Congress to release the additional money,” Boehner said.

Under the terms of the original bailout bill, a bill revoking the second $350 billion has fast-track rules for floor consideration but is subject to a veto.

House Democrats needed significant Republican support to pass the bailout package last year, days after an initial attempt failed, leading to a 777-point drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

Democrats are feeling the bailout pressure from constituents outraged at tales of millionaire chief executive officers using bailout money for mergers, bonuses, deluxe travel and the like, and are demanding that Obama implement tougher controls and greater accountability. Summers promised to deal with those problems, and Geithner is expected to offer more specifics on how the Treasury Department would do it. Democrats also want assurances that money will be spent on preventing foreclosures, which was called for in the original bailout bill but essentially ignored by the Bush administration.

House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) backed Obama’s call for the release of the funding, but said Congress should still go forward with legislation adding more strings. Frank introduced legislation last week mandating that at least $40 billion in bailout funds go to preventing home foreclosures, along with somewhat tougher restrictions on executive compensation and new reporting requirements on companies that get bailouts.

Frank’s legislation will have a hearing today and is expected on the House floor later this week, with final passage expected Thursday, but Frank has acknowledged that Obama already has the ability to do most of what is called for in his bill.

“It seems clear the Obama administration agrees with what we are setting forward, and I believe this creates a framework so that the release of these funds can go forward,” Frank said.

Dodd has already suggested that the Senate doesn’t have the time to take up the Frank bill or its own bill. But it could serve as a fig leaf for House Democrats nervous about a public backlash against Wall Street bailouts.

Senior House Democratic aides argued that the Frank legislation isn’t merely for show.

“At the very least, it will lay down a marker on what the House wants to see,” one aide said.

In the meantime, Democrats and Republicans alike will bash the Bush administration’s handling of the first $350 billion tranche.

Members in both parties feel misled because the money wasn’t used to buy up troubled assets as they were led to believe, but instead was used to pump cash into large banks as well as to bail out Detroit automakers.

Some lawmakers have complained that the administration gave banks billions without guarantees that the money would be used to increase lending. Others groused that investors such as Warren Buffett were getting a greater return on their investments into the banks than the 5 percent return plus stock warrants that the government will receive.

If both the House and Senate vote to revoke the second $350 billion, it would likely set up a veto override battle with Obama just as he is beginning his term, but getting one-third plus one of either chamber is a pretty easy lift.

House Democrats will also be pushing through a major priority blocked by Bush — an expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program — hoping to have it on Obama’s desk shortly after he takes office. The Senate will be slogging away on a public lands bill and possibly a measure to deal with equal pay for equal work.