WASHINGTON — On the morning of the $700 billion bailout vote, President Bush spoke by telephone with five Texas Republicans — Joe Barton, Kenny Marchant, Randy Neugebauer, Mike Conaway and Kevin Brady — to secure their votes. His score: one for five.
Only Brady, R-The Woodlands, decided to vote for the bill, reflecting a lame-duck president's limited clout, even in his home state. Of the 19 Texas Republicans, four voted for the bailout.
Conaway, a long-time Bush friend and former business partner from Midland, was undecided until the last moment when he pushed the voting card into the machine.
"I didn’t make up my mind up until my finger was hovering over the red or green button," Conaway said. "It was that close. I could have gone either way. I understood the risk to the system but in the final analysis, I believed there was a better way to do it."
Bush's call early Monday morning was a factor in his thinking. "He said 'we need to do this,' and I said, 'Mr. President, I don't know what I'm going to do.'"
As it happens, Bush called Conaway again Tuesday, to postpone a fundraiser at the Texan's Midland home scheduled for Thursday. "He said two things, 'we've got to do something' and 'what are your ideas.'"
Bush did not bring up Conaway's "no" vote. "He's a really forward-looking guy," said the Midland lawmaker. "He doesn’t spend a lot of time looking in the rear view mirror."
Brady, said spokeswoman Bonnie Buchanan, spoke to Bush for three or four minutes. "He really appreciated the call, and was glad to speak with him again since Brady served in the state legislature while Bush was governor."
Brady, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, issued a terse statement after the vote.
"With all their bad decisions, I don't give a flip about Wall Street," Brady said. "But as much as I detest this bill, doing nothing is worse. I couldn’t responsibly stand by and let this financial virus spread to families and small businesses in southeast Texas communities, risking their jobs or their bank accounts."
Barton, R-Arlington, also got a presidential call early Monday. "It was a cordial conversation and the president asked for his vote," said Barton spokesman Sean Brown. But Barton told Bush, "I've got to go with my constituents and they're adamantly against this bill."
Barton's office has received close to 2,000 calls and e-mails, which, up to the time of the vote, were running more than 90% against the bailout. But Brown said that when the stock market plummeted 777 points Monday afternoon, "the calls switched, with 70% for the bailout and 30% against." With Tuesday's swing back up of the Dow Jones industrials by 485 points, "the phones stopped ringing," Brown said.
Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell, also had a "a cordial respectful conversation," said chief of staff Brian Thomas. "Congressman Marchant made some suggestions on what would make the proposal better and told him he couldn't vote for the bill in its current form."
For Randy Neugebauer, R-Lubbock, there was double-barreled pressure, from Bush and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.
"He had been leaning 'no' from the beginning," said Neugebauer spokesperson Michelle Richmond. The Lubbock lawmaker told Bush he was unable to vote for the legislation because "he was looking for solutions that were market-oriented." Neugebauer told Paulson the same thing.
Bush's record of convincing even old friends to take a tough vote shouldn't be surprising, said Steve Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College in Minnesota. "His political capital is very low right now. Bill Clinton is the only exception to a president's declining popularity as they leave office."
"This is an issue the Republican base is upset about," Schier said. "There are real limits to what George Bush can accomplish even for members of his own party."