Bailout votes may haunt members of Congress

By Chris Bragg
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

The votes cast Monday on the potential Wall Street bailout may one day be viewed in the same manner as the vote on whether to authorize the Iraq War — as a historic wedge on which political careers may be made or lost, primaries launched, general elections decided.

In a national sense, House Republicans probably will bear the brunt or take the credit, depending on how the financial crisis ultimately shakes out. Two-thirds of their ranks voted against the bailout, while only 40 percent of Democrats did.

But for members of Colorado’s delegation, the vote cut across partisan lines. The three Colorado representatives in favor of the bailout (these proponents might call it a “recovery package”), were Democrats Diana DeGette, of the 1st Congressional District, and Ed Perlmutter, of CD 7, and Republican Tom Tancredo, of CD 6.

Meanwhile, the four members joining in the ‘no’ vote were Democrats Mark Udall, of CD 2, and John Salazar, of CD 3, and Republicans Marilyn Musgrave, of CD 4, and Doug Lamborn, of CD 5.

In other words, strange bedfellows on both sides of the ledger.

“I was surprised to be associated with Tom Tancredo,” said DeGette during a press conference in Denver on Tuesday, adding that such a thing hasn’t happened much during her 12 years in Washington D.C.

DeGette, the chief deputy whip in the House of Representatives, said she tried to convince both Republican and Democratic colleagues to change their vote on the House floor Monday, before the bill’s stunning defeat, which left DeGette “frankly horrified.”

On Tuesday, after stocks had plunged 777 points, DeGette had no comment about the fact that Udall and Salazar had voted to defeat the bill. She would not say whether, as deputy whip, she was surprised by the votes.

She did, however, dismiss claims by Republican leadership that a partisan speech from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi caused a dozen GOP votes to swing against the bill.

“I was down there whipping,” she said. “I think that’s an excuse people made. They wanted to vote ‘no,’ but they wanted it to pass. That’s not political courage.”

DeGette, who probably has her Denver congressional seat sewn up for life if she wants it, and would seem to be immune to the political winds, said she is now lobbying her four House colleagues who voted nay — two Democrats, two Republicans — to change their minds.

Members of Congress reported that before the vote was held, they were getting 200 phones calls in opposition to the bailout for every one in favor of it. In her remarks Tuesday morning, however, DeGette said the tide of public opinion had begun to turn after the previous day’s stock market plunge.

Still, members of her Colorado staff said of the roughly 70 phone calls they had received by 10 a.m. that morning, almost all were against the bailout. There was speculation that they came from voters who were still trying to get her to change her mind.

Meanwhile, both members of the Colorado delegation who face hotly contested elections in five weeks voted against the bill.

Udall, who is in a tight race for the U.S. Senate against Republican Bob Schaffer, said his vote was based on policy as well as the lack of public support for the proposal.

“The negotiators revised the administration’s proposal and produced a bill that came closer to what I think is needed,” he said. “But it is not enough.”

In a prepared statement, Udall said the bill needed more effective relief for homeowners facing foreclosure, that the “legislation must avoid using the same excessive credit practices that created the very problems we are working to fix” and that “legislation responding to those problems should include additional strong reform measures to prevent their recurrence.”

During a Sunday appearance on Meet the Press, Udall said he hadn’t taken a position on the bailout, noting that a final version wouldn’t be available until that night. He did, however, indicate that he was listening to public opinion on the matter.

“My calls are mixed between people that say ‘No!’ and people say that say ‘Hell no!’” Udall said.

Schaffer, a former congressman, didn’t say how he would vote if he had an opportunity. He did, however, say, “There’s nothing to like about the notion that there is a $700 billion fix needed with respect to a collapse on Wall Street.”

The other member of Colorado’s congressional delegation who’s facing a tough electoral battle is Republican Marilyn Musgrave, who is down in polls against Democratic challenger Betsy Markey. Musgrave also voted against the bailout — bucking the president, John McCain and her party’s leadership — and issued perhaps the strongest statement against it.

“Today, I voted against a piece of legislation that was fatally flawed from the beginning,” she said. “This bill was too hastily assembled and had taxpayers paying far too high a price. The staggering amount of money, $700 billion, and the lack of real reform were, in the end, simply unacceptable.”

Salazar, a Democrat who faces only token opposition in his Western Slope re-election bid this year, wasn’t under political pressure. He said his problem with bill was that it offered no mandatory mechanism to repay taxpayers and provided no relief to homeowners facing foreclosure.

“Certainly, the overwhelmingly negative reaction from his constituents was a factor in his vote,” said Salazar spokesman Eric Wortman. But Wortman said the vote was not in any way political.

“From my boss, not at all,” he said. “He has nothing to lose politically.”

For the fiscal hawk Lamborn, who won a three-way primary in his first race as an incumbent, the vote probably was a no-brainer. His Colorado Springs district is the 16th most conservative in the entire nation.

Lamborn was one of a number of House Republicans who said they voted against the bill based on conservative principles, and whose numbers ultimately derailed the bill.

“It is an invasion of the free market, which I believe is the best way to sustain prosperity for our country,” he said. “I believe that voluntary private capital, not involuntary taxpayer capital, will best help our financial markets recover. Our free market system is the greatest engine for prosperity the world has ever known.”

Finally, there was Tancredo, who is retiring from Congress in January, faced little political pressure on the vote and was the lone Colorado Republican to vote in favor of the proposal.

Tancredo emphasized that his vote had not been influenced by any other kinds of pressures.

“For the record, I receive no support from big banks, Wall Street investment houses or corporate executives,” he stated. “I was not individually lobbied by any of the Congressional leadership to vote for the bill. And I have no job offer from any entity connected with the any organization that would benefit from the bill.”

Tancredo said he had come to his decision after “significant reflection.” That reflection apparently resulted in a curious metaphor.

“A careless smoker who starts a fire in his house may deserve to suffer the consequences,” said Tancredo. “We could refuse to call the fire department and take solace in the fact that the careless smoker will lose everything. But if we do not act, the embers from the fire caused by his irresponsibility may land on homes throughout the neighborhood.

“In order to save our homes, we must put water on the fire started by the careless smoker,” he said.

Will the “house” burn down because of the meltdown in the House? The answer probably will determine whether the four Colorado votes cast against the plan will ultimately be viewed as political courage or folly.

Judging by their public statements, the two Democrats who voted against the bill seem most open to changing their votes, joining DeGette and Perlmutter in the “yes” column. As of press time Thursday, the House was set to vote on a revised version of the bailout bill Friday morning that had been passed overwhelmingly Wednesday night by the Senate. Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar voted for the bill, while Republican Sen. Wayne Allard voted against it.

The altered bill included new tax breaks, but did not address many of the fundamental concerns expressed by the Colorado delegation regarding home foreclosures or stricter oversight that resulted in their original “no” votes.

It was unclear at press time if any members of the Colorado caucus would change their votes on Friday morning, or if the bill would flip the 13 extra votes needed to pass the House.