Lobbying is intense as bailout vote nears

Cummings is still 'wrestling' with vote after deluge of calls

October 03, 2008|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,matthew.brown@baltsun.com

WASHINGTON - At times yesterday, the telephone calls into the Capitol Hill office of Rep. Elijah E. Cummings merged into a single, constant ring.

And with a House vote possible today on the $700 billion financial rescue package approved by the Senate, the Baltimore Democrat was hearing from both sides.

After meeting last night with his fellow House Democrats, he said he was still "wrestling" with his vote.

"We're still trying to make sure that there's clarity with regard to helping people who are facing foreclosure," said Cummings, who voted against a bailout earlier this week. "That's a major issue."

Dozens of House members were feeling the squeeze yesterday as a furious lobbying effort for the bailout by President Bush and congressional leaders was met by a tidal wave of telephone calls and e-mails from the public urging lawmakers to vote it down.

"Number one, where are we going to get $700 billion?" asked Michael Butkus, a professional musician who called Cummings from Upper Marlboro. "We're broke."

The plan to help the nation's financial markets by using public funds to buy bad mortgages and other toxic debt has drawn voter reaction at a level ordinarily associated with such hot-button issues as immigration or the war in Iraq. More than 600 callers contacted Cummings this week, with sentiment running 3 to 1 against a bailout.

"I've never seen this high a volume, or this high a passion," Harrison Wadsworth IV, the staffer responsible for answering the telephone in Cummings' office in the Rayburn House Office Building, said between calls. "I've been tied up all day."

Conservative House Republicans joined with liberal Democrats on Monday to reject an earlier version of the rescue plan. Cummings is attracting attention because of his "no" vote. While callers have made their opposition clear, Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee, and others have sought his support for the version approved Wednesday by the Senate.

That bill includes more than $100 billion in tax breaks and other enticements intended to attract Republican votes to what leaders on both sides hope will be bipartisan passage. It's those additions that spurred Robert Mitzel, a retired pastor from Catonsville, to call Cummings.

"I guess I have no objection to the government trying to help out, but this new bailout bill looks to me like it's just bribery," said Mitzel. "Here Congress takes my money to bribe some Republicans so they'll vote for this thing."

The Senate version also expands federal insurance on bank deposits, which had been sought by House members of both parties. Despite Mitzel's misgivings, the changes appeared to increase support; a handful of members said yesterday they would now support the legislation.

Whether there will be enough support to reverse Monday's 228-205 vote remained unclear. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said yesterday that he would not bring a bill back to the floor unless he were sure it had the votes to pass.

"We have no intention of failing again," the Southern Maryland Democrat said. "That would have, I think, a very negative impact on the markets and on confidence in the markets."

Hoyer said opposition among callers to his office had fallen from 6-to-1 before the House vote Monday to 3-to-1 after.

"We've still got great apprehension, but you can see in 72 hours we've halved the numbers," he said. "I think on this kind of issue, there's opposition because there's not full understanding. And there's not assurance that this is going to work.

Hoyer agreed that there are no guarantees, but he said that without congressional action, "the situation will get much worse."

Back in Cummings' office, as Wadsworth juggled calls, nine men and women wearing yellow T-shirts demanding "Stop loan sharks" crowded in. Ashidda Khalil, the Baltimore director of the Neighborhood Assistance Corp. of America, said the group was visiting all Maryland House members to register its opposition. "There's nothing in it for the homeowners," she said. "We're saying no to Wall Street. Look out for Main Street."

Cummings himself has expressed similar sentiments. He spoke of a conversation yesterday with a neighbor who is going into foreclosure.

"He said, 'I don't want a handout, I just want to restructure my loan,'" Cummings said. "He asked me what was in the package for him."

Cummings said he has been gathering assurances from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, from House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank and from Obama, should he become president, that homeowners such as his neighbor would be able to seek relief.

"Since we don't know about the Wall Street piece and whether it's going to work," he said, "we have to make sure there's a Main Street piece that has some effect."

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