WASHINGTON — House Minority Leader John Boehner got a standing ovation from his Republican colleagues on Friday, one day after he led their move to derail a $700 billion bailout of Wall Street negotiated by President Bush, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, congressional Democrats and Senate Republicans.
Despite the image of political chaos in Washington that their stand caused, Boehner told his House GOP colleagues at their closed-door meeting Friday that they'd given him one of the best receptions he'd ever gotten as their leader. Why? Rep. Ray LaHood, a retiring Illinois congressman, explained the enthusiasm: "Because he stood up to the president and Paulson."
Democrats have charged that the House Republicans' revolt against the bipartisan bailout plan was a ploy to help Republican presidential nominee John McCain by giving him a mess to clean up. As it turned out, McCain's high-profile eleventh-hour intervention achieved nothing. Still, the political reality behind the House Republicans' action is much more complicated than the Democrats' charge.
House Republicans are motivated by their own troubled re-election bids in November; fear of primary challenges in the next election cycle if they’re seen as reckless spenders; strong small-government and free-market convictions; and internal House GOP leadership politics — including whether Boehner will stay in his job and who might one day succeed him.
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Then there's the Republicans' pent-up anger at President Bush for repeatedly pushing them to quickly pass major legislation that they later regretted — such as authorizing the Iraq war, costly Hurricane Katrina spending and the expensive Medicare prescription drug benefit plan.
"No doubt there's skepticism about this. We've heard this kind of thing before," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
"It’s not because we're stirring up trouble or trying to keep progress from being made," said Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn. "We're responding to the people we represent, who are really, really leery of these type of agreements.
"They can blame it on McCain coming back to town if they want to, but the fact is, Boehner is just holding our ground for a day or two and trying to listen to the people we represent. My calls early in the week were 20-to-1 against it," Wamp said. "Then they were 10-to-1 against it and today they're only 4-to-1 against it. I'm monitoring it every single day. The case is starting to be made that there is a crisis and that it takes sweeping action." Republicans also saw political advantage in daring House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to push through a Wall Street bailout without them. House Democrats don't want to enact a costly and unpopular bailout that voters could hold against them next month unless House Republicans take the leap with them.
For some fiscal conservatives, the idea of a Wall Street bailout paid by taxpayers was simply too distasteful to swallow without a fight. They included Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, seen as a potential future candidate for House Republican leader. Boehner had empowered Cantor to explore a House GOP bailout alternative that would have the government insure private investment in troubled firms rather than using taxpayer dollars to buy the firms' toxic assets.
"There's a feeling their ideology got us into this mess and they should get us out of this mess," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, said of the $700 billion bailout that Democrats "have a moral obligation and a duty to pass it" without GOP support if they're convinced it's needed. "The truth is that Democrats can pass the Paulson plan in an hour if they believe it is the right thing to do." Independent political analyst Charlie Cook said part of what House Republicans are doing is the standard minority-party practice of "we can do whatever feels good because we don't have to govern" and that House Democrats played the same game when they were in the minority. On top of that, he said, House Republicans "don’t feel particularly obligated to President Bush. Most of these guys don't even like John McCain.
"When you've got 29 open Republican seats and the other party only has seven, you're going to lose seats no matter what the political environment is,” Cook said. Throw in this year's anti-Republican climate, he said, and "I think these guys are practicing local politics, and short term it's politically savvy and economically irresponsible."