Shocked, open-mouthed and fearful US lawmakers stood in the well of the House of Representatives on Monday, dumbfounded by the magnitude of the chamber’s decision to kill a bid to save Wall Street.
Democratic and Republican party leaders who had battled to pass a US$700 billion bailout bill, stared in disbelief as an electronic vote counter ticked down on the doomsday scenario many feared if the bill went down.
Several members who backed the plan, hammered out in midnight-oil-burning talks between the parties and the White House over the weekend, left their colleagues in no doubt about the price for rejection.
“Four hundred ... 500” one member shouted, relaying the points loss from the plummeting stock markets as Democratic leaders held the vote open while Republican counterparts tried to twist arms of conservative holdouts.
Democratic House Majority leader Steny Hoyer toured the benches of the recalcitrant conservatives with minority leader John Boehner and minority whip Roy Blunt, normal party allegiance cast aside.
But conservative Republicans who warned the bill crushed cherished US economic freedoms refused exortations to change their votes.
Tensions rocketed in the House as it became clear that vote would be close. The electronic scoreboard on the wall of the chamber was locked up even at 160 votes for each side.
Then the no votes surged ahead as lawmakers facing election in just five weeks, and fearful of the impact of their support for a bill to bailout Wall Street which is unpopular in the heartland, rushed to the no column.
The final score: 228 “no” votes to 205 in favor of passing the bill.
Fuming lawmakers poured out of the House to snipe at one another in front of hordes of reporters.
Only moments before, the mood had been euphoric, as Democratic and Republican leaders called on their members to back the bill.
House speaker Nancy Pelosi crossed the floor after the vote started, clapping her hands, and patted Republican leader John Boehner on the back.
Hoyer had earlier praised Boehner’s “courage and leadership” for signing up the deal.
But as soon as the vote closed, a fierce partisan blame game erupted, with Republicans accusing Pelosi of giving a partisan speech moments before the vote, in which she blamed Republican management for the crisis.
“I do believe that we could have gotten there today, had it not been for this partisan speech that the Speaker gave on the floor of the House,” Boehner told reporters.
Senior Democrat David Obey was watching on television, and rushed down to the lobby outside the House of Representatives to rebut Boehner, even as his press conference was still going on.
“All of the leaders said this had to be a four-legged stool, the other party just ripped off one of the legs,” said Obey, furiously gesticulating through a scrum of reporters at Boehner and his colleagues.
Democrat Barney Frank, the chief House negotiator on the deal, rode to Pelosi’s defense.
“There’s a terrible crisis affecting the American economy,” Frank said. “Because somebody hurt their feelings, they decide to punish the country. I mean, I would not have imputed that kind of pettiness.”
Later, as initial shock and partisan sniping wore off and the political price to be paid by the tanking stock markets became clear, there were the first signs of a new drive to reverse the House moves.
Senior Democrats vowed they would not leave town for their election break before passing a replacement rescue bill.
On the Senate side, Democrat Chris Dodd and Republican Judd Gregg, prime movers behind the initial bailout agreement, said they would follow suit.
“Stay tuned,” Pelosi told reporters. “What happened today cannot stand — we must move forward, and I hope that the markets will take that message.”
“The American people [need] to know that we are here to protect the taxpayer as we stabilize the markets, and our work will not be finished until that is done,” she said.
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