WASHINGTON (AP) - President Bush and the two men fighting to succeed him joined forces Thursday at a historic White House meeting on a multibillion-dollar Wall Street bailout plan, aiming to stave off a national economic disaster. Key members of Congress said they had struck a deal earlier in the day, but its future was unclear.
The tentative accord would give the Bush administration just a fraction of the $700 billion it had requested up front, with half that total subject to a congressional veto, Capitol Hill aides said. But nothing appeared final. Amid several signs that conservatives were balking, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, emerged from the White House and said the announced agreement "is, obviously, no agreement."
Both of Congress' Republican leaders, Rep. John Boehner and Sen. Mitch McConnell, issued statements saying there was not yet an agreement.
Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain, who have both sought to distance themselves from the unpopular Bush, sat down with the president at the White House for an hourlong afternoon session that was striking in this brutally partisan season and apparently without precedent. By also including Congress' Democratic and Republican leaders, the meeting gathered nearly all Washington's political power structure at one long table in a small West Wing room.
"All of us around the table ... know we've got to get something done as quickly as possible," Bush told reporters, brought in for only the start of the meeting. Obama and McCain were at distant ends of the oval table, not even in each other's sight lines. Bush, playing host in the middle, was flanked by Congress' two Democratic leaders, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
No one else spoke, and all the visitors left the White House without talking to a huge media group gathered outside.
Hours earlier, private talks on Capitol Hill ended with the announcement that an agreement in principle had been reached on a financial rescue package-though changed from what the Bush administration proposed last weekend by near-daily concessions to demands from the right and the left.
Under the deal among key lawmakers, the Treasury secretary would get $250 billion immediately and could have an additional $100 billion if he certified it was needed, an approach designed to give lawmakers a stronger hand in controlling the unprecedented rescue. Aides described the details on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
The plan's centerpiece still is for the government to buy the toxic, mortgage-based assets of shaky financial institutions in a bid to keep them from going under and setting off a cascade of ruinous events, including wiped-out retirement savings, rising home foreclosures, closed businesses, and lost jobs.
A group of GOP lawmakers circulated a less government-focused alternative. Their proposal would have the government provide insurance to companies that agree to hold frozen assets, rather than have the government purchase the assets. Rep Eric Cantor, R-Va., said the idea would be to remove the burden of the bailout from taxpayers and place it, over time, on Wall Street instead.
Among other changes agreed to by the congressional negotiators was a limit on pay for executives of bailed-out financial institutions and an equity stake in rescued companies for the government.
Despite the Republican outcry, Banking Chairman Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and Republican Sen. Bob Bennett, among others, said the negotiators from Congress and the administration had arrived at a deal that could win approval. Other key lawmakers said that after days of bare-knuckles negotiations there was little of note left to resolve.
Wall Street showed its pleasure-before the negative Republican comments started piling up. The Dow Jones industrials closed some 196 points higher, though that was down from larger gains earlier in the day.
Previous presidents have occasionally consulted with and briefed those campaigning to assume their jobs, but there have been no bipartisan joint meetings of Thursday's magnitude in recent memory. Former President Reagan had planned an October 1987 White House reception with the six GOP presidential candidates, for instance, but canceled the meeting because of the Wall Street crash.
The White House timed the extraordinary meeting to fit candidates' schedules-and to convene after the close of stock markets.
Despite the national prominence of Bush, McCain and Obama, none has been deeply involved in this week's scramble to hammer out a package.
But the developments on the Hill lent fresh purpose to the session: providing encouragement-and political cover-for lawmakers of both parties to accept a plan. It is expected to come up for votes in the House and Senate quickly, perhaps within days, so that lawmakers can adjourn to campaign for their own re-elections.
Any pitch by Bush, Obama and McCain would be no easy sell.
All lawmakers are returning to home districts packed with constituents angry that they are being asked to foot the bill to bail out Wall Street's rich guys when they and their neighbors are suffering the effects of ballooning mortgages and tightening credit. This means Obama and even the increasingly marginalized Bush could have sway with their joint resolve.
McCain, in particular, was being leaned on by Democrats and fellow Republicans alike to deliver GOP votes, as some conservatives are in open revolt over the astonishing price tag of the proposal and the heavy hand of government that it would place on private markets. Placating them enough to bring them in line could be a tall order for the Republican presidential nominee who has a checkered relationship with the right wing of his party.
Layered over the White House meeting was a complicated web of potential political benefits and consequences for both Obama and McCain.
McCain hoped voters would believe that he rose above politics to wade into successful, nitty-gritty dealmaking at a time of urgent crisis, but he risked being seen instead as either overly impulsive or politically craven, or both. Obama saw a chance to appear presidential and fit for duty, but was also caught off guard strategically by McCain's surprising gamble in saying he was suspending his campaigning and asking to delay Friday night's debate to focus on the crisis.