President Bush and congressional leaders conducted fierce eleventh-hour lobbying Thursday for enough House votes to push the $700 billion financial industry bailout bill to the finish line.
Bush said "a lot of people are watching" and he kept up his pleas from the White House as Democratic and Republican party leaders worked over wayward colleagues wherever they could find them. Bush argued that the measure represents the "best chance" to calm unnerved financial markets and ease a widening credit crunch.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, the second-ranking House Democrat, said that his party won't put the bill up for the vote planned for Friday unless lawmakers are sure it will pass.
U.S. & World
Stories that affect your life across the U.S. and around the world.
Speaking to reporters during a meeting with business executives, Bush said the increasingly tight credit markets are in some instances threatening the existence of small businesses. He said Congress "must listen" to those arguing for passage of the bill, derided by many on Capitol Hill and within the general public as a handout to a risk-taking Wall Street.
The much-maligned measure was returned to the House after the Senate resuscitated it with tax cuts and other sweeteners in a 74-25 vote late Wednesday. The bill had been defeated in House narrowly on Monday.
Hoyer said that "there's a good prospect of getting it done" but left open the possibility the House could make changes to the legislation. What won't happen, he said, is a repeat of the kind of crushing scene that played out earlier this week when the bill went down on the House floor, triggering the largest stock sell-off in history.
"I'm going to be pretty confident that we have sufficient votes to pass this before we put it on the floor," Hoyer said.
The Senate's addition of some $110 billion in tax breaks and other sweeteners helped satisfy some Republican critics, but angered conservative so-called "Blue Dog" Democrats concerned about swelling the deficit. Still, Hoyer predicted the number of Democratic defectors from the measure "is going to be minimal."
The rescue package would let the government spend billions of dollars to buy bad mortgage-related securities and other devalued assets held by troubled financial institutions. If successful, advocates say, that would allow frozen credit to begin flowing again and prevent a serious recession.
In efforts to appease GOP opponents, the Senate-passed bill contains a provision to raise, from $100,000 to $250,000, the cap on federal deposit insurance.
House Republicans also welcomed a decision Tuesday by the Securities and Exchange Commission to ease rules that force companies to devalue assets on their balance sheets to reflect the price they can get on the market.
The fierce lobbying came as the head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, urged people to remain calm.
"I think overall the banking system remains very sound so that's why I think it's so important for everybody to keep their head," commission Chairman Sheila Bair said.
But the drumbeat of bad news rattled on. A government report said that orders to U.S. factories plunged by the largest amount in nearly two years as the credit strains smashed manufacturers with hurricane-like force.
The bailout package was never in danger in the Senate. Lawmakers there played catalysts for the House instead, adding tax provisions popular with the left and right in a bid that House leaders hope — but cannot guarantee — will persuade enough of the House rank-and-file to switch from "nay" to "aye" on a highly contentious bill a month before Election Day.
They were especially targeting the 133 House Republicans who voted against the package.
To some degree, at least, House GOP opposition appeared to be easing as the Senate added $100 billion in tax breaks for businesses and the middle class, plus a provision to raise, from $100,000 to $250,000, the cap on federal deposit insurance.
"This is an issue that is affecting hardworking people," Bush said Thursday. "They are worried about their savings; they're worried about their jobs; they're worried about their houses; they're worried about their small businesses."
"The House of Representatives must listen to these voices and get this bill passed so we can get about the business of restoring confidence," Bush added.