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Puzzling through another McCain surprise

Perhaps the most baffling aspect of John McCain’s move Wednesday was that it was hard to see how the  senator, in person, could help make the Paulson-Frank financial rescue bill more palatable to those opposed.
Image: John McCain
John McCain said Wednesday he was suspending his campaign so he could go back to Washington to deal with the financial markets crisis. Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images
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Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain jolted the 2008 race Wednesday by saying he’d suspend his campaign and come to the Capitol to help pass a bill to rescue the nation’s financial sector.

He also called for a postponement of the debate with his Democratic opponent Sen. Barack Obama, set for Friday night.

McCain said, “No consensus has developed to support the administration's proposal. I do not believe that the plan on the table will pass as it currently stands, and we are running out of time."

Was it a masterstroke by McCain, a lunge out of desperation, or a puzzling improvisation?

McCain ran the risk that he would arrive Thursday just in time to find the rug being pulled out from under him — if there’s an announcement of a deal having been reached between the Bush administration and Democrats in Congress.

Dramatically setting the stage for an arrival at the Capitol can backfire: in 2006 Sen. John Kerry, D- Mass., flew back from skiing in Davos, Switzerland to say he'd lead a filibuster of Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito — but then suddenly seemed to lose interest and scurried away from reporters who tried to question him about the filibuster.

McCain and Obama issued a joint statement Wednesday saying "This is a time to rise above politics for the good of the country. We cannot risk an economic catastrophe."

President Bush invited both candidates, along with congressional leaders, to confer at the White House Thursday afternoon on the financial markets crisis.

Immediate reaction in the Capitol to McCain’s sudden move to suspend his campaign was scathing from Democrats, and ranged from cool to supportive from Republicans.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, the independent Democrat who is an ardent McCain ally, took part in a Wednesday night meeting of Democratic senators with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke at the Capitol.

McCain to spur bipartisan solution?Emerging from that meeting, Lieberman said, “I think Sen. McCain would serve a very useful purpose because it’s clear that this won’t pass without Republican support and Sen. McCain — just as Sen. Obama — is the nominee of his party and has become the titular leader of his party. I think if anybody can make this a bipartisan solution, which we need, it's Sen. McCain. I’m glad he’s coming back.”

McCain would “hopefully be a constructive force in mediating with the Democrats,” Lieberman said.

“This is not the time for debates — this is the for everybody to be here in Washington acting to solve this economic crisis in a sensible and smart way.”

Obama “could play a constructive role here. There’s no substitute for being here.”

But Obama supporter Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said McCain's sudden visit to the Capitol Thursday “feels like a stunt.”

She said, “All they (Obama and McCain) need to do is to send a signal as to what they’re for. It’s important that they debate. We don’t need photo ops. Their physical presence here is a distraction.”

'An American first'
McCain is “an American first and a Republican second. This clearly shows the kind of leader that he is,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, leader of the House GOP conservative caucus.

Hensarling opposes the bill which was being revised in bargaining between Paulson and House Financial Services Committee chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass., and other Democratic leaders.

“I assure you that if he and Sen. Obama sat down at the table with congressional leadership, something might get done that just might get sufficient support on both sides of the aisle,” Hensarling said.

But Frank called McCain’s move “the longest Hail Mary pass in the history of football, and of Marys.”

What could McCain do in person?
Perhaps the most baffling aspect of McCain’s move was that, at first blush, it was hard to see how the Arizona senator, in person, could help make the Paulson-Frank financial rescue bill any more palatable to congressional Republicans who are opposed to it.

McCain seems ill-cast in the role of whip for House Republican members who are at the heart of the opposition to the bill.

House Democratic leaders have made it clear that Republicans will be expected to supply a significant number of their members to vote for the bill, and that it would unacceptable for Democrats to supply 180 House members and Republicans only about 40 or 50.

“McCain and his buddies created this (financial distress) with their deregulation fever and all of us are of the opinion that they (Republicans) should put up the majority of votes” to pass the financial rescue plan, said Rep. Louise Slaughter, D- N.Y., the chairwoman of the House Rules Committee.

House Ways and Means Committee chairman Rep. Charles Rangel, D- N.Y., laughingly said McCain was trying to put off Friday’s debate because his campaign was in such a parlous position.

“I could understand if I was in McCain’s position and had to go to a debate and saw the direction the campaign was going and took a hard look at my vice presidential running mate, I would say, ‘Can we talk?’

Rangel added, chortling sarcastically “Based on his experience with finances in the Senate, I think he can make a contribution. In the 26 years he has been here he’s been very close to the (financial services industry). Put the election on hold and let his ‘great work’ in the Senate speak for itself.”

Third-ranking House Republican Rep. Adam Putnam of Florida said moments after the McCain announcement that “as of now the Paulson proposal has not gotten the traction to complete this process by the end of the week.”

Putnam said it was important for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and GOP Leader John Boehner to agree on a consensus plan “that can pass and pass quickly to restore confidence in the markets.”

So will McCain help do that? If so, how? None of that was clear.

Will McCain propose an alternative to the Paulson-Frank financial rescue bill?

And if so, how will he get not only Republicans in Congress but Democrats, who spent the afternoon mocking him, to back it?

Asked if he wanted McCain to be a part in the nitty-gritty negotiation between Congress and the Bush administration, Putnam indicated he didn’t think this was a good idea by remaining silent for 10 seconds.

Asked what specific role McCain could play in revising the Paulson/Frank plan, Putnam answered carefully, “The most productive role Sen. McCain and Sen. Obama could play would be for them to each acknowledge the need for a congressional intervention to avert a financial disaster. By doing so, they would detoxify this process and bless a bipartisan proposal moving forward by taking it out of the presidential politics mix.”

He added, “That would be the post-partisan, maverick statesman move that they need to make. They are each the senior statesmen of their parties. The two candidates — who will have to deal with whatever outcome Congress passes here — have a responsibility in this process.”

One reason that process has become “toxified” is that many Democrats don’t want to pass a Wall Street bailout bill, and rank-and-file House Republicans are balking at their leaders' call for them to rally around the plan.

And as Frank modifies the Paulson plan, it will grow ever more unacceptable to GOP conservatives.