After days of demanding that Sen. John McCain take a more forceful position in favor of a massive Wall Street rescue, Democrats reacted angrily to the Republican presidential nominee's attempt yesterday to inject himself into the negotiations over the legislation.
But with tempers still flaring, Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, appeared to quiet the controversy with his announcement last night that after consulting with President Bush, he, too, will be in Washington today.
McCain's move -- dismissed as "erratic," grandstanding, and even "somewhere on the stupidity scale between plain silly and numbingly desperate," by former Republican congressman Mickey Edwards (Okla.) -- drew mostly praise from congressional Republicans. Democrats have been pleading with McCain to help line up support for the $700 billion bailout for days, they said.
"Given that it is only a few months before a new president takes the oath of office, it is vital that the next president play an active role in crafting this critical plan," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio).
But until Obama agreed to come to Washington, GOP leaders were wary of their nominee's unilateral decision. Boehner joined with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in issuing a statement saying that "working in a bipartisan manner, we have made progress" on an agreement -- without McCain.
The negotiating table has thus far been extremely small. The talks have been led by House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.); Rep. Spencer Bachus (Ala.), the committee's ranking Republican; and Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. and his staff. Senate banking committee Chairman Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) and his ranking Republican, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (Ala.), have had a more limited role, while congressional leaders have focused on bringing their members around simply to the concept of a $700 billion bailout of teetering financial firms.
Negotiators questioned how either presidential candidate could now enter those talks, especially when a process that started badly on Tuesday showed signs of strong progress yesterday.
"Obama and McCain coming back will not be particularly helpful," said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). "It's just going to bring the presidential campaign into the halls of Congress directly."
Until yesterday, the greatest concern among Democrats was that McCain could walk away from the bailout effort, attacking it as a rescue plan for Wall Street millionaires and leaving Democratic leaders lined up with an unpopular president and an unpopular package.
President Bush has been largely absent from the crisis as well, and he, too, entered the fray last night with an address to the nation. But Republican aides said it was their "standard-bearer" -- not their highly unpopular commander in chief -- who could rally wavering Republicans behind a final deal, and said the senator from Arizona was reacting to Democratic argument that a true bipartisan deal depends on his support.
Why, McCain aides asked, would McCain back the plan without having shaped it?
"We got a good sense last night, even more so this morning," one top aide said. "Got in a position where Democrats were warily circling McCain -- not going to commit to a deal unless McCain does. It was just a time for leadership. So he just stepped up."
McCain has been involved in difficult negotiations before. Some have been successful, such as his landmark campaign finance restrictions. Others have been protracted and painful failures, such as his overhaul of immigration law and his efforts to impose a federal settlement for tobacco lawsuits. But, Democrats said, he is no expert on financial markets, and his pugnacious negotiating style would not be helpful.
"We are close to a deal," said a House Democratic leadership aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the aide was not cleared to discuss the issue with the media. "If he thinks he is going to come in now and blow up the deal, or politicize this crisis, or start holding press conferences and taking credit for a Paulson-Frank-Pelosi deal, he's wrong."
Neither McCain nor Obama has said whether he will support a rescue package before seeing the final bill. But they have laid out conditions that are largely in sync: more transparency in the legislative process, more oversight of how the money is spent, a taxpayer stake in the participating firms so that a successful turnaround would help recoup federal money, and strict limits on compensation for executives whose firms get help.
Earlier this week, Obama dropped his insistence that the plan include a generous stimulus package for the broader economy, after Republicans said they could not accept what they called extraneous spending. Yesterday, he came out against many members of his party when he said the package should not include changes in bankruptcy law that would have allowed judges to restructure mortgages for people facing foreclosure.
Obama made it clear that he thinks McCain's move to suspend his campaign and join the negotiations would only inject politics into the process. But he left it to congressional Democrats to lob the more incendiary criticism. "This is a little bit like having a 100-yard race, when you're 25 yards behind with 25 yards left and declaring, 'Lets suspend the race,' " Hoyer said.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) described it as a "gimmick." "I think McCain -- he's sort of floundering. He's been all over the place," he said. "I think his campaign doesn't know quite what to do. And because John McCain has never really paid attention to economic issues, it's lost on him. This is an example of how he would lead. He doesn't have a center."
Staff writers Michael D. Shear and Anne E. Kornblut contributed to this report.