There was a time when Dick Cheney could turn back a Republican revolt on Capitol Hill.
House Republicans rose up en masse against their vice president on Tuesday morning to blast an administration proposal that would grant Treasury historic authority to start buying hundreds of billions of dollars in devalued mortgage-related assets, according to members present.
The lines to speak were long, the questions many and sentiment in the Cannon Caucus Room Tuesday swayed heavily against the Treasury proposal.
Afterward, Texas Rep. Joe Barton took the unusual step of telling reporters that he had politely given Cheney a piece of his mind – the sort of dissent Republicans considered unthinkable during much of the Bush administration's reign.
A full-throated Republican revolt could create huge problems for the administration and congressional Democrats scrambling to assemble a package to reassure jittery markets. It could also preserve the Republicans’ options after the fact – if the bailout doesn’t work or proves deeply unpopular with voters, they can say they opposed it.
“They were in worse shape when they left than when they came in,” said one lawmaker who was there. “These were the wrong guys…The problem is that they’ve used up a lot of good will.”
Cheney and the White House team made policy arguments for the proposal instead of political arguments that would help lawmakers explain a vote for the plan to voters in their districts. The meeting was almost an hour old when the vice president told the anxious Republicans, in response to a question, that failure to pass this would result in more foreclosures and cause grave hardship for their constituents.
Hennesey and Bolten – who shares a Goldman Sachs pedigree with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson –faced a number of tough questions about why the $700 billion bailout was necessary, how it would actually work and why this particular plan was the best response to the current crisis, according to notes circulated from the meeting.
Conservatives present also grilled the White House officials about what alternatives the administration considered before coming up with this plan.
Hill Republicans have circulated their own alternatives. Most deal with long-term issues – tax reform, regulatory overhauls or comprehensive energy proposals – that lack the immediate impact Treasury seeks.
But GOP lawmakers are getting more specific. Conservatives on the Republican Study Committee offered an alternative package Tuesday afternoon. Republicans on the House Financial Services Committee, which includes plenty of conservatives, planto offer their own alternative package later in the day, Alabama Rep. Spencer Bachus said.