If Congress manages to pass a bailout to stop a financial meltdown, Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, says Republican presidential nominee John McCain should get much of the credit.
Bennett who was in most of the key meetings Thursday before and after negotiations fell apart said House Republicans essentially had bolted from all bargaining. But McCain convinced them to return and work seriously on Friday.
"I think that McCain understands that if this thing (working out a bailout) blows up and he gets blamed as a lot of people in the press might try to do that's not going to be good for his campaign," Bennett told the Deseret News.
"I think the House Republicans were affected a little bit overnight by McCain talking to them and saying, 'You guys really need to make a deal,"' and they returned to bargain seriously afterward, Bennett said.
Democrats have a different take and say an agreement was near until McCain came to Washington and they contend that House Republicans threw a wrench in the works at McCain's prodding.
Bennett had a front-row seat for it all as the initial top negotiator for Senate Republicans. He explained the chronology of events to back his assertion that McCain was helpful. Bennett became that top negotiator when Richard Shelby, the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, opposed any deal himself and suggested that Bennett be sent instead.
In a Thursday morning meeting with representatives from Democrats and Republicans from the House and Senate, Bennett said they "started through the various proposals ... and it was a very productive meeting devoid of political posturing."
He said, "Because the press wasn't there and we were all serious about trying to solve the problem, it was not a typical hearing where people are talking to the television cameras. At the end, we had made a great deal of progress and felt we had the framework around which a deal could be struck."
Participants reported that at a press conference, "and then I'm all over the world saying we have a deal and it'll pass immediately. What I said was I'm confident it can pass eventually, and that we have a framework and it was a very important meeting."
However in that initial meeting, Bennett said, House Republicans were represented by Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., who it turns out did not have authority to speak for his entire caucus, and it did not like the agreed-upon framework.
When McCain and Barack Obama arrived at President Bush's invitation to participate in talks, the group moved to the White House. And Bennett said it was there that House Republican Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, as a new negotiator, dropped a bit of a bomb.
"Boehner made it very clear that the House Republicans were not going to buy any portion of the (Treasury Secretary Henry) Paulson proposal. Of course, we had been working around a version of the Paulson proposal," Bennett said.
"So that meant that maybe we start all over again because the Democrats said very clearly, 'We are not going to do this unless we have the House Republicans on board.' In other words, if this thing turns out not to have been a good solution, we want it clear that it was done in a bipartisan way and we're not going to do it with Democrats alone," Bennett said.
He said the White House meeting was halted, and Paulson was brought in to try to address House Republicans' concerns. "Then the decision was made that there were too many people in the room," and Bennett left, leaving Sen. Judd Gregg, R-Vt., as the Senate Republicans' sole negotiator because he "is a careful lawyer probably better suited" to that stage of wrangling over legal language.
Bennett said the meeting broke up after a few hours with little progress, and with House Republicans saying they wanted no part of the administration's proposals. That's when Bennett says McCain's influence probably helped.
"I think they were probably more disposed to show up and negotiate this morning than they would have been before they heard from McCain," he said. "I think it was helpful to have him weigh in with the House and say, 'You better show up with a serious negotiator."'House Republicans sent their whip, Roy Blunt, R-Mo., with full authority to speak for them, Bennett said. "The fact there is now a senior, serious House leader on the Republican side sitting at the table leads me to believe that we are going to get somewhere," Bennett said.