Bailout Revival Sought, With Better Deposit Safety

By: AP
By: AP

WASHINGTON - Alarmed by setbacks, supporters of the imperiled multibillion-dollar economic rescue fought to bring it back to life Tuesday, courting reluctant lawmakers with sweeteners including a plan to reassure Americans their bank deposits are safe.

Wall Street, at least, regained hope. The Dow Jones industrials rose 485 points, one day after a record 778-point plunge following rejection in the U.S. House of the plan worked out by congressional leaders and the Bush administration.

Senate and House leaders, President Bush and the two rivals to succeed all rummaged through ideas new and old, desperately seeking to change a dozen House members' votes and pass the $700 billion plan.

Besides the proposal to expand federal deposit insurance, aimed at helping small businesses as well as individual savers, there was talk of making it easier for financial institutions to hold questionable long-term assets. That is an idea embraced by some of the House Republicans who slapped down the bailout bill on Monday.

Congressional leaders hope the half-dozen changes under discussion will be enough to persuade as few as six House Republicans and six Democrats to undo Monday's stunning vote.

With the Capitol largely quiet because of the Jewish new year, no overall plan appeared to jell just yet.

Some lawmakers suggested the Senate might approve its own version on Wednesday, presumably with a few changes to the failed House bill, and then give the House a new crack at the legislation before the week is out.

Still, the House is where the problems are, and leaders there were scrounging for ideas that might appeal to a few of the 133 Republicans and 95 Democrats who rejected the proposal on Monday.

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., told reporters, "I'm told a number of people who voted 'no' yesterday are having serious second thoughts about it." He added, however, "There's no game plan that's been decided."

The idea drawing the biggest support was to raise the federal deposit insurance limit, now $100,000 per account, to $250,000. Several officials, including presidential nominees John McCain and Barack Obama, endorsed the change.

So did the agency that runs the program.

Within hours of the candidates' separate statements, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. chairman Sheila Bair asked Congress for temporary authority to raise the limit by an unspecified amount. That could help ease a crisis of confidence in the banking system, Bair said.

She said the overwhelming majority of banks remain sound but an increase in the cap would help ease a crisis of confidence in the banking system as well as encourage banks to begin more lending.

Other ideas include extending unemployment insurance benefits, typically a Democratic goal, but one that appeals to some Rust Belt Republicans. Another Democratic-backed idea would double the property tax deduction taken by people who do not itemize their taxes. And another calls for more spending on transportation infrastructure projects, which would create more jobs. Budget hawks in both parties might object, however.

Monday's House vote was a stinging setback to leaders of both parties and to Bush. The administration's proposal, still the heart of the legislation under consideration, would allow the government to buy bad mortgages and other deficient assets held by troubled financial institutions. If successful, advocates of the plan believe, that would help lift a major weight off the already sputtering national economy.

But the proposal ignited furious responses from thousands of Americans, who flooded congressional telephones. The House voted 228-205 against the plan. Some lawmakers reported a shift in constituent calls pouring into their offices Tuesday after the record stock market decline. Many callers, they said, want Congress to do something without "bailing out Wall Street."

Bush renewed his efforts, speaking with McCain and Obama and making another statement from the White House. "Congress must act," he declared.

Though stock prices rose, more attention was on credit markets. A key rate that banks charge each other shot higher, further evidence of a tightening of credit availability.

Bush was talking about everyday Americans on Tuesday, not banks or other financial institutions. And no supporters were using the word "bailout."

The president noted that the maximum $700 billion in the proposed bill was dwarfed by the $1 trillion in lost wealth that resulted from Monday's stock market decline.

"The dramatic drop in the stock market that we saw yesterday will have a direct impact on retirement accounts, pension funds and personal savings of millions of our citizens," Bush said. "And if our nation continues on this course, the economic damage will be painful and lasting."

Republicans said the FDIC proposal might attract lawmakers on the left and right who want to help small business owners and avert runs on banks by customers fearful of losing their savings.

Another possible change to the bill would call on regulators to modify "mark to market" accounting rules. Such rules require banks and other financial institutions to adjust the value of their assets to reflect current market prices, even if they plan to hold the assets for years.

Some House Republicans say current rules forced banks to report huge paper losses on mortgage-backed securities, which might have been avoided.

There was a note of irony in that proposal. One Republican familiar with the discussions conceded it amounted to step toward deregulation at a time when Obama, McCain and House members in both parties are clamoring for greater controls on the financial industry.

Liberal Democrats who opposed the bill were suggesting other changes. Their ideas include banning some forms of "short selling," in which investors bet that a stock's value will drop. Republicans showed little interest.

The rescue package was Topic A on the presidential campaign trail.

"The first thing I would do is say, 'Let's not call it a bailout. Let's call it a rescue,'" McCain told CNN. He said, "Americans are frightened right now" and political leaders must give them an immediate solution and a longer-term approach to the problem.

Obama issued a statement saying that significantly increasing federal deposit insurance would help small businesses and make the U.S. banking system more secure as well as restore public confidence.

The bill's defeat in the House came despite furious personal lobbying by Bush and support from House leaders of both parties. But ideological groups on the left and the right organized against it. Even pressure in favor of the bill from some of the biggest special interests in Washington, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Realtors, could not sway enough votes.


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