WASHINGTON — Talking tougher by the hour, livid Democrats confronted beleaguered insurance giant AIG with an ultimatum Tuesday: Give back $165 million in post-bailout bonuses or watch Congress tax it away with emergency legislation.
Republicans declared the Democrats were hardly blameless, accusing them of standing by while the bonus deal was cemented and suggesting that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner could and should have done more.
While the White House expressed confidence in Geithner, it was clearly placing the responsibility for how the matter was handled on his shoulders. Geithner sent a letter late Tuesday to congressional leaders informing them that he was working with the Justice Department to determine whether any of the AIG payments could be recovered.
He cited a provision in the recent economic stimulus law that gave him authority to review compensation to the highest-paid employees of companies that already have received federal assistance.
Meanwhile, senior administration sources said President Barack Obama learned only last Thursday that AIG was paying the bonuses.
The White House has faced questions about when, exactly, Obama learned about the payouts. Officials for the first time on Tuesday night said Geithner told the White House last Thursday, and senior aides informed the president later that day.
Fresh details, meanwhile, pushed AIG outrage ever higher: New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo reported that 73 separate company employees received bonus checks of $1 million or more last Friday. This at a company that was failing so spectacularly the government felt the need to prop it up with a $170 billion bailout.
Bailout remains politically unpopular
The financial bailout program remains politically unpopular and has been a drag on Barack Obama's new presidency, even though the plan began under his predecessor, George W. Bush. The White House is well aware of the nation's bailout fatigue — anger that hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars have gone to prop up financial institutions that made poor decisions, while many others who have done no wrong have paid the price.
The administration wouldn't be pleased to hear what Maria Panza-Villa, of Hillsboro, Ore., had to say. "Wasn't Obama supposed to fix this?" asked the mother of two who said she has lost three jobs since November as one employer after another went under.
AIG chief executive Edward Liddy can expect a verbal pummeling Wednesday when he testifies before a House subcommittee.
Video: Beyond Beltway On Capitol Hill late Tuesday, House Democrats directed three powerful committees to come up with legislation this week to authorize Attorney General Eric Holder to recover massive bonus payments made by companies like the ones paid last week by American International Group Inc.
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Senate Democrats, meanwhile, suggested that if the AIG executives had any integrity, they would return the $165 million in bonus money. One leading Republican even suggested they might honorably kill themselves, then said he didn't really mean it.
Whatever the process, lawmakers of all stripes said, the money — generally "retention payments" to keep prized employees — belongs back in the government's hands.
"Recipients of these bonuses will not be able to keep all of their money," declared Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in an unusually strong threat delivered on the Senate floor.
"If you don't return it on your own, we will do it for you," echoed Chuck Schumer of New York.
Tax code as political weapon
Not all Democratic leaders were racing in that direction. Penalizing people with the tax code could be inappropriate, declared Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., chairman of the taxwriting Ways and Means Committee. He said, "It's difficult for me to think of the code as a political weapon."
Others saw the connection as reasonable and relevant. House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass., noted that the government, through the bailout, is now an 80 percent owner of the company and suggested that was grounds to sue to recover the bonuses.
Republicans said President Obama and his administration should have leaned harder on AIG executives to reject the extra pay, raising some speculation over Geithner's future.
Speculation over Geithner's future
"I don't know if he should resign over this," said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala. "He works for the president of the United States. But I can tell you, this is just another example of where he seems to be out of the loop. Treasury should have let the American people know about this."
The administration quickly moved to quash talk of Geithner's ouster. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama retains full confidence in his treasury secretary.
There was a daylong rush to the microphones on Capitol Hill — a bipartisan campaign to out-outrage each other.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, led the stampede with a statement Monday night on a radio show that AIG executives should either return the money or commit suicide in what he described as the Japanese style of taking responsibility. He spent much of Tuesday backtracking but still calling for corporate titans to take responsibility for grievous errors in judgment.
Other Republicans said Democratic leaders last month killed a plan that would have forced financial institutions to compensate taxpayers if they paid their executives large bonuses after receiving federal bailout money.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, a co-sponsor of the amendment to Obama's stimulus bill, said striking it "left open an escape hatch of golden parachutes for top executives on Wall Street."
Not the only company to hand out bonuses
AIG has received more than $170 billion from U.S. taxpayers. With bailouts in hand, AIG has paid out tens of billions of dollars to banks, municipal governments and other financial institutions around the world.
AIG is no stranger to controversy, nor is it the only publicly rescued company to give bonuses while being bailed out of financial ruin.
Merrill Lynch paid $3.6 billion in bonuses to its executives while its sale to Bank of America Corp., a big recipient of bailout money, was pending.
Morgan Stanley also came under fire Tuesday. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., urged Geithner to halt retention awards planned by the company's joint brokerage venture with Citigroup. Both firms have received billions of dollars in government bailout funds. Morgan Stanley is reportedly planning to pay its brokers up to $3 billion in retention payments — a spokeswoman said the program amounts to a nine-year loan — to keep them from jumping to other firms.
Cuomo said AIG last week paid bonuses of $1 million or more to 73 employees, including 11 who no longer work there. Despite their company contracts, the AIG employees agreed to take 2009 salaries of $1 in exchange for receiving their bonus packages, he said. And he said the fact that AIG could negotiate the terms of the payments "flies in the face of AIG's assertion" that it had no choice but to make the contractual bonus payments.
Video: Congress plays good cop, bad cop with AIG Administration officials said Geithner did all that he legally could to avert the payments.
Geithner urged AIG chief executive Edward Liddy last week to renegotiate the contracts that called for the bonuses.
"He recognized that you can't just abrogate contracts willy-nilly, but he moved to do what could be done," Larry Summers, Obama's chief economic adviser, told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday.
Impose a 100 percent tax on the bonuses?
Though AIG's bonus plans were disclosed last year, Congress' outrage and threats have begun pouring forth only recently.
At least three Democratic bills and one Republican measure were introduced to crack down on the Treasury Department and stiffen rules for recipients of bailout funds. Two bills in the House aimed to impose a 100 percent tax on the bonuses.
In the Senate, the top two members of the Senate Finance Committee — a Republican and Democrat — announced a proposal to impose a 35 percent excise tax on the companies paying the bonuses and a 35 percent excise tax on the employees receiving them.
The Internal Revenue Service currently withholds 25 percent from bonuses less than $1 million and 35 percent for bonuses more than $1 million.
The Obama administration said it was trying to put strict limits on how future government bailout dollars could be used, and Reid on Tuesday said he urged the administration to step up its pace on that.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.