Bailout foes are switching votes — or thinking about it

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 2, 2008 

WASHINGTON — When Rep. J. Gresham Barrett went home to his district this week, his constituents were still hopping mad over the financial bailout that the House of Representatives, with the South Carolina Republican's help, had just defeated.

However, they told Barrett that he had to return to Washington and take action to prevent an economic meltdown.

"Get the best deal you can," Barrett recalled one constituent telling him. "Make sure you take care of us, but solve this crisis."

Barrett appears to have heeded that advice: He declared late Thursday that he would switch sides and vote Friday for a significantly changed rescue plan.

"If Congress does not act, the effects will be serious for American small business, families and consumers," Barrett said. "While this bill continues to contain a number of provisions that I oppose, I believe we are at the end of the legislative process and action is required."

In neighboring North Carolina, Republican Rep. Sue Myrick watched as Citigroup bought most of Wachovia, the big retail bank headquartered in her hometown of Charlotte, at a deeply discounted price.

"It's kind of like a moving target," Myrick said of the nation's roiling economic ills. "We know we have a problem, and we have to deal with it in some way."

Barrett and Myrick are among the 228 House members — 133 Republicans and 95 Democrats — who voted against the rescue plan Monday.

After substantial changes in the bailout package following the House rebuke, the Senate overwhelmingly approved it late Wednesday, setting up a second House vote Friday.

Like their peers, Barrett and Myrick faced pressure to change their stance and vote for the $700 billion bailout.

"It's the most important vote I've ever taken in my career," Barrett said. "If people didn't understand the gravity before Monday, they do now."

Barrett, who's eyeing a gubernatorial run in his conservative home state, liked some of the changes in the revised Senate measure, such as increasing the level of bank deposits that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. insures to $250,000 from $100,000.

Barrett and his staff spent much of the week in feverish talks on Capitol Hill, weighing proposals in congressional caucuses and dozens of phone calls with colleagues and constituents.

He preferred to protect his bargaining power in feverish talks on Capitol Hill, weighing proposals in congressional caucuses and dozens of phone calls with colleagues and constituents.

"We've been proposing suggestions, not only to the House and Senate leaderships, but to Treasury, also," Barrett said. "We're trying to limit the government's liability and let the free-market process work if it can."

The Senate sweetened the bailout proposal by increasing the FDIC insurance level for bank deposits and extending dozens of tax breaks totaling $110 billion for families and companies alike.

Among the tax credits are a one-year fix to prevent the alternative minimum tax from hitting more households, tax credits for business research and authorization of bonds by rural utilities to finance renewable-energy production.

Barrett didn't hear from President Bush or senior White House aides, despite the bailout's status as one of the chief legislative initiatives of Bush's nearly eight years in office.

Barrett's aides were talking frequently with aides to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.

"I guess working directly with Treasury, we're working with the White House," Barrett said. "I'm sure the White House and the Treasury talk."

Though Bush reportedly was lobbying some House Republicans to vote for the rescue plan, he may have had good reason to keep a low profile.

At a closed meeting earlier in the week, Vice President Dick Cheney was greeted rudely by some Republican members, who charged loudly that he and Bush had deceived them into voting in 2002 for the use of military force against Iraq.

Barrett said he'd had several conversations with House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, who was jolted Monday when more than two-thirds of his Republican caucus rejected the bailout package he'd helped craft.

Myrick, a seventh-term lawmaker and former Charlotte mayor, said that some constituents who'd opposed the bailout were having second thoughts.

"Some people are calling back for a second time to say they've changed their minds as they've become more informed," she said. "People are looking at it differently."

Myrick appreciated the tax relief that had been added to the revised bill, and she liked new accounting provisions allowing mortgage-based assets to reflect longer-term, higher values than the virtually worthless ones they now have in the devastated housing market.

"After I get more information, I'll make a final decision," Myrick said. "I like what I see so far."

Neither lawmaker regretted the rebellious votes Monday that helped sink the initial rescue plan.

"I think my vote helped make this bill better," Barrett said.

(Kevin G. Hall contributed to this article.)

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