WASHINGTON (AP) – With the economy on the brink and elections looming, Congress approved an unprecedented $700 billion government bailout of the battered financial industry on Friday and sent it to President Bush for his certain signature.
The final vote was 263-171 in the House, a comfortable margin that was 58 more votes than the measure garnered in Monday's stunning defeat. The vote capped two weeks of tumult in Congress and on Wall Street, punctuated by daily warnings that the country confronted the gravest economic crisis since the Great Depression if lawmakers failed to act.
At the White House, Bush declared, "We have acted boldly to prevent the crisis on Wall Street from becoming a crisis in communities across our country."
Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson pledged quick action to get the program up and operating.
"We all know that we are in the midst of a financial crisis," House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio, said shortly before casting his vote for government intervention in private capital markets that was unthinkable only a month ago.
"And we know that if we do nothing, this crisis is likely to worsen and to put us into an economic slump like most of us have never seen."
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the bill was needed to "Begin to shape the financial stability of our country and the economic security of our people."
Stocks were up on Wall Street, where there was a lot of anticipation of the vote but where investors also were buffeted by a bad report on the job market. The Labor Department said employers slashed 159,000 jobs in September, the largest cut in five years and further evidence of a sinking economy.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, who had joined the administration in urging quick action, said, "The legislation is a critical step toward stabilizing our financial markets and ensuring an uninterrupted flow of credit to households and businesses." He said the Fed would work closely with the Treasury Department to put the bill's provisions into effect.
Even before the measure cleared Congress, the White House sought to dampen optimism of its immediate impact on the economy. "This legislation is to fix a problem in our financial markets," said spokesman Tony Fratto. "It's not sold as giving a boost to the economy, but rather preventing a crisis in our economy… If it works as we hope it will, credit will be able to begin flowing again."
The House vote marked a sharp change from Monday, when an earlier measure was sent down to defeat, largely at the hands of angry conservative Republicans.
Senate leaders quickly took custody of the measure, adding on $110 billion in tax and spending provisions designed to attract additional support, then grafting on legislation mandating broader mental health coverage in the insurance industry. The revised measure won Senate approval Wednesday night, 74-25, setting up a furious round of lobbying in the House as the administration, congressional leaders, the major party presidential candidates and outside groups joined forces behind the measure.
It worked – augmented by a sudden switch in public opinion that occurred after the stock market took its largest-ever one-day dive on Monday.
"No matter what we do or what we pass, there are still tough times out there. People are mad – I'm mad," said Republican Rep. J. Gresham Barrett of South Carolina, who opposed the measure the first time it came to a vote. Now, he said, "We have to act. We have to act now."
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., another convert, said, "I have decided that the cost of doing nothing is greater than the cost of doing something."
Critics were unrelenting.
"How can we have capitalism on the way up and socialism on the way down," said Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, a leader among conservative Republicans who oppose the central thrust of the legislation – an unprecedented federal intervention into the private capital markets.
It was little more than two weeks ago that Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke concluded that the economy was in such danger that a massive government intervention in the private markets was essential.
The core of the plan remains little changed from its inception – the Treasury Department would have $700 billion at its disposal to purchase bad mortage-related securities that are weighing down the balance sheets of institutions that hold them. The flow of credit has slowed, in some cases drying up, threatening the ability of businesses to conduct routine operations or expand.
At the same time, lawmakers have dramatically changed the measure, insisting on greater congressional supervision over the $700 billion, taking measures to protect taxpayers, and insisting on steps to crack down on so-called "golden parachutes" that go to corporate executives whose companies fail.
Earlier in the week, the legislation was altered to expand the federal insurance program for individual bank deposits, and the Securities and Exchange Commission took steps to ease the impact of the questionable mortgage-backed securities on financial institutions.
In the moments before the vote, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, pledged "serious surgery" next year to address the underlying causes of the crisis.
If anything, the economic news added to the sense of urgency.
The Labor Department said initial claims for jobless benefits had increased last week to the highest level since the gloomy days after the 2001 terror attacks. The news of the payroll cuts came on top of Thursday's Commerce Department report that factory orders in August plunged by 4 percent.
Typifying arguments the problem no longer is just a Wall Street issue but also one for Main Street, lawmakers from California and Florida said their state governments were beginning to experience trouble borrowing funds for their own operations.
Pelosi said, "We must win it for Mr. and Mrs. Jones on Main Street."
One month before Election Day, the drama unfolded in an intensely political atmosphere.
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, a supporter of the bill, made calls to members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who publicly credited him with changing their minds.
Rep. Elijah Cummings and Donna Edwards, both Maryland Democrats, were among them. They said Obama had pledged if he wins the White House that he would help homeowners facing foreclosure on their mortgages. He also pledged to support changes in the bankruptcy law to make it less burdensome on consumers.
"It's not too often you get the future president telling you that his priority matches your priority," said Cummings.
Obama's rival, Sen. John McCain, who announced a brief suspension in his campaign more than a week ago to try and help solve the financial crisis, made calls to Republicans.
Republican Rep. Sue Myrick of North Carolina, who switched her vote to favor the measure, looked ahead to the election and said, "I may lose this race over this vote, but that's OK with me. This is the right vote for the country."
The vote on Monday staggered the congressional leadership and contributed to the largest one-day stock market drop in history, 778 points as measured by the Dow Jones Industrials.
Across the Capitol, Senate leaders reacted quickly, deciding to sweeten the bill with a series of popular tax breaks as well as spending on rural schools and disaster aid. They also grafted on a bill to expand mental health coverage under private insurance plans.
At the same time, the change in federal deposit insurance and the action by the SEC on an obscure accounting rule helped produce a steady trickle of converts.