11/02/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

During Bailout Vote, Senate Chamber Acts as Weighty Campaign Space

WASHINGTON, DC -- The Senate, which voted on Wednesday night to pass what they're calling the financial relief bill, was a very different scene than the House on Monday. There, the representatives gave passionate, often partisan two-minute speeches to an increasingly crowded audience, and during the roll call vote, the floor was taut with tension. The Senate, on the other hand, was careful, long-winded, and subtle.

For two-and-a-half hours, the bulk of the seats sat empty while Christopher Dodd (D-CT) lent the floor to colleagues for ten minutes at a time. Most gave more or less the same speeches I heard at the House on Monday: the bill was flawed, but it helped Main Street; the bill was flawed, and it hurt Main Street. Depending on who was talking, Jack and Jill Taxpayer were either stuck in a credit freeze, unable to get a house mortgage, car loan, or college tuition aid. Or, Jack and Jill were already strapped, and now they would be asked also to pay for the sins and poor judgment of investors. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), who may be running for governor next year, thought to mention that government services also risked drying up in a tight credit market, and that some streets had still not been cleared after Hurricane Ike.

Given the bleak prognosis either way, the Taxpayers can be forgiven for not really know what to think about the bailout. Having said that, many senators pointed out the toughness of the vote, especially considering the calls and emails they'd received from constituents who said they were against it. The implication would seem that those with more information and insight--or, depending again on your point of view, those with political courage--were in a better position to know what was best for the American people.

Which leads me to the one speech that departed from the familiar rhetoric. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) addressed what she called the one thing no one else was talking about: that the bill would allow the government to pick winners and losers in corporate America. "It is inserting the Federal Government in a role in which they decide, along with the private sector, exactly how funds should be allocated," she argued.

She cited the example of a bank in her own state, Washington Mutual, which had been "forced into sale by this Government" and bought by J.P. Morgan. In a year, J.P. Morgan predicted that it would have over a 25% return on its investment, and the FDIC would benefit, too. Thus, Morgan and the government were the winners--but Washington Mutual employees, who were out retirement, deferred compensation, and other plans, were the losers.

In the scenario Cantwell laid out, the government plays an eschatological role, weighing investors like souls on Judgment Day. Instead she argued for "the traditional role that Government has done time and time again: to use our equity to leverage the private sector to secure our economy."

No one else picked up on the point.

Eventually, the debate turned briefly to an Amtrak bill and senators began filing in to cast their votes. Up in the public gallery, people craned to see familiar characters: John Kerry (D-MA) strolling up and down the aisles like the evening's host. Ted Stevens (R-AK) scuttling to his seat; Robert Byrd (D-WV) in a wheelchair. From the side door, Hillary Clinton entered alone, a handbag over one shoulder like a shield. Barack Obama glided in behind the rostrum, and McCain came in the front door flanked by several colleagues. Much later, Joe Biden strode up to his seat, paused briefly, and left again.

Except for the occasional flick of their thumbs to indicate yay or nay on the Amtrak legislation, the senators might have been at a cocktail party. They gathered on the floor in groups of three or four. There were handshakes and kisses. Kerry patted Obama's shoulder, crooked his finger to draw him near, and whispered in his ear. Both candidates largely kept to their own sides. After a quick handshake, they conspicuously avoided each other like a broken-up couple.

If there was suspense in the room, it had more to do with the presidential election than with the outcome of this particular measure, however much the senators reiterated it was the most
important vote of their careers. You could almost see the balance of power shift from the White House and the Democratic House leadership, which had failed to deliver the bill, to the Senate, where Obama and Hillary Clinton chatted at length and McCain kept his shoulders squared to the clerk while their colleagues fell in line behind them.

When the vote for the "relief bill" came, the room turned quiet and attentive. Both the Senate Majority and Senate Minority Leaders' speeches were pro, affirming that voting for the bill was the right thing to do and avoiding placing blame. During a roll call vote, each senator stood when his or her name was called, and the No's said so particularly adamantly, although in the end there were only 25 of them.