27 September 2008

Bad News For The Bailout

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill seem determined to work together to pass a bill that will get the credit markets churning again. But will they do it this week, as some had hoped just a few days ago? Don't count on it.

"Do I expect to pass something this week?" Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., mused to reporters Tuesday. "I expect to pass something as soon as we can. I think it's important that we get it done right, not get it done fast."

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, says his office has gotten "close to zero" calls in support of the $700 billion plan proposed by the administration. He doubts it'll happen immediately either. "I don't think it has to be a week" he says. "If we do it right, then we need to take as long as it needs."

The more Congress examines the Bush administration's bailout plan, the hazier its outcome gets. At a Senate Banking Committee hearing Tuesday, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle complained of being rushed to pass legislation or else risk financial meltdown.

"The secretary and the administration need to know that what they have sent to us is not acceptable," says Committee Chairman Chris Dodd, D-Conn. The committee's top Republican, Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, says he's concerned about its cost and whether it will even work.

In fact, some of the most basic details, including the $700 billion figure Treasury would use to buy up bad debt, are fuzzy.

"It's not based on any particular data point," a Treasury spokeswoman told Forbes.com Tuesday. "We just wanted to choose a really large number."

Wow. If it wants to see a bailout bill passed soon, the administration's going to have to come up with some hard answers to hard questions. Public support for it already seems to be waning. According to a Rasmussen Reports poll released Tuesday, 44% of those surveyed oppose the administration's plan, up from 37% Monday.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, who testified before the Senate committee Tuesday, will get a chance to fine tune their answers Wednesday afternoon, when they appear before the House Financial Services Committee.

A spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., says she is optimistic that the House will pass a bill this week. But that doesn't mean the Senate, which is by nature more sluggish than its larger counterpart on the other side of Capitol Hill, will be so quick to act.

"They will act first," says Sen. Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "Many of our members today were just beginning to have interaction with Secretary Paulson."

Dodd proposed his own counter-proposal to Paulson's plan earlier this week. Among other things, it calls for limits on executive compensation at troubled firms and for the Treasury to take a contingent equity stake in those firms. On Tuesday, Paulson rebuffed both ideas, as it might discourage firms from participating in the bailout program.

Those things aside, lawmakers have plenty of other concerns with Treasury's proposal. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., suggested the bailout be doled out perhaps $150 billion at a time, instead of $700 billion all at once. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., says it has an initial cost of $2,300 for every man, woman and child in the country. Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., calls it a "financial socialism and it's un-American."

Dodd says that in speaking with his Senate colleagues, all are agreed on three issues: that a bailout bill include some oversight accountability for the Treasury, protection for taxpayers and that it address the continuing foreclosure problem.

He also points to one other concern: Paulson, the bill's chief architect, is scheduled to leave office in just four months.

"I'm not about to give a $700 billion appropriation to a secretary I don't know yet," says Dodd.

--Senior writer Liz Moyer contributed to this article.

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