'United' effort flops hard at White House

WASHINGTON --- As if people needed one more reason to question their faith in Washington.

The credit crisis shows the difficulty Barack Obama or John McCain will face in fulfilling a pledge to change business-as-usual in this town.

Squabbling reached new heights this past week over President Bush's proposed $700 billion bailout of tottering banks and financial institutions holding devalued mortgages.

In public, Mr. Bush and the two men who want his job wore bipartisan hats, calling for a need to join hands to save the economy. It didn't take long for the behind-the-scenes acrimony and political posturing to seep into the open.

The economy is on the precipice of what Mr. Bush warned could be a "deep and painful recession." A Republican revolt laid bare his waning relevance.

Through it all, Americans haven't been shy about voicing their outrage. E-mails to Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, said: "This is madness to ask us, the taxpayers, to cover the liabilities of Wall Street. We are tired of being fleeced," and "What a shame and disgrace to the U.S. Taxpayer and this country."

Mr. McCain paused his campaign and flew to Washington to help broker a deal. He had originally said he would not appear at a scheduled debate Friday night with Mr. Obama unless that deal was reached beforehand.

Mr. McCain came up with the idea of having Mr. Bush invite all sides to the White House, which assembled the meeting with a shrug, figuring it couldn't hurt.

Everybody showed up and sat smiling in what appeared to be a show of unity. After all, hours before, key lawmakers said they had agreed in principle on a plan to unfreeze the credit markets by having the government buy up bad mortgage securities.

Then, in private, the discussion revealed deep discord. The session broke up about an hour later in disarray. The McCain camp called it a "contentious shouting match." What was intended to be a display of power brokers working together was anything but.

Democrats peppered House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio with questions about the details of an alternative plan he was backing. At the end, according to two participates, Mr. Bush issued an appeal: "Can't we just all go out and say things are OK?"

Mr. McCain, Mr. Obama and the congressional leaders spurned the request.

Witnesses said that afterward, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, half-jokingly, dropped to one knee and begged Democratic participants not to go before reporters waiting outside and disclose how badly the meeting had gone.

In typical Washington style, both sides blamed each other for the breakdown in talks.

Democrats accused Mr. McCain of causing the impasse by injecting presidential politics into the negotiations.

"All of a sudden, now that we are on the verge of making a deal, John McCain airdrops himself to help us make the deal," said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.

Republicans accused Democrats of rushing an "agreement in principle" before the White House meeting to deny Mr. McCain a chance to help seal the deal. One Republican gave Mr. McCain the credit for Thursday morning's "agreement in principle."

"They got something done this morning only because McCain came back," said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. Later, however, Mr. DeMint was still deriding Mr. Bush's plan as "a trillion-dollar Band-Aid" that would not stimulate the economy.

White House counselor Ed Gillespie said the White House viewed the bailout ordeal as a delicate balancing act between stressing urgency while trying to avoid any perception that it was trying to railroad Congress into passing the massive package.

"We didn't want to be seen as jamming Congress," he said.

Once a deal is made, memories of the messy sausage-making might fade. But sure to follow is a new blame game over which party was responsible for the crisis in the first place.