Capital Markets

Bailout Fallout Could Hit in 2010

Whoever wins the White House and whichever party holds the keys to the next Congress will come in facing an enormous debt.
Roll Call StaffSeptember 25, 2008

With all eyes on how a proposed bailout of U.S. financial markets might affect the outcome of the November elections, the ultimate winners and losers might not be seen until 2010 when 34 incumbent Senators will be asked to accept blame, or take credit, for their Congressional action.

Democratic and Republican Senators this week acknowledged they are weighing the longer-term political risks of a plan to save the economy from a Great Depression-style collapse.

Likewise, they concede that it likely will take some time for any rescue plan to play out, perhaps months or years after the Bush administration has turned off the lights.

“This thing has tails, for sure,” said one 2010 Republican Senator speaking on the condition of anonymity. “There’s no question it spills over. Many of us were glad we weren’t on the ballot in 2006, and that we weren’t this year. But there’s a lot of issues out there that could come into play.”

Still, many Senators say both privately and publicly that the potential political fallout for them two years from now would be far greater if they walk away having done nothing to try to avert an economic disaster today. Voting to do something — no matter what the outcome — is a better bet, most said.

“We have an urgent problem that at this moment no one knows how to address,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who faces re-election in two years. “I don’t think any of us can see out six months from now, much less two years from now.”

“This type of financial wreckage hasn’t occurred in our lifetime. … I just don’t think people know the consequences of it two years from now,” Dorgan added. “We are worried about right now, not six months from now, not two years from now.”

Similarly, Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) said while things “could come home to roost” when he’s up for re-election in two years, he believes “it’s too big to let be a factor” in his decision-making on the proposal.

“You got to think about the gravity of the moment — it’s a financial 9/11,” he said. “The risks of not doing anything are far greater, politically and otherwise.”

The calculation for House and Senate lawmakers is a weighty one with just over a month to go until a new president is selected. Democrats and Republicans are looking for guidance from their respective presidential hopefuls — Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) — as they prepare to inherit a shaky financial system from an outgoing President Bush.

“I think people are very concerned,” about the political risks, said Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), vice chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “But we have to see what’s going to happen here — not only are people concerned about 2010, they are concerned about 2008.”

In the Senate, the focus over the last week has been whether a bipartisan solution can be found, one that attracts a near equal number of votes from both parties. Neither party wants to be saddled with the blame for the economic downturn, nor for having offered a failed fix to the problem.

Another political unknown could lie in the dollars and cents, which will be at a premium if a $700 billion Band-Aid is adopted. Whoever wins the White House and whichever party holds the keys to the next Congress will come in facing an enormous debt, and having very little budgetary wiggle room to enact new initiatives or proposals.

“That falls into the ‘be careful what you wish for category,’” a Senate Democratic leadership aide said. “This bailout has serious implications for the next president and makes any attempts at major reforms that much more difficult.”

Of the 34 Senators in cycle in 2010, 19 are Republicans and 15 are Democrats. That map is slightly more balanced than this year, where Senate Republicans are facing a tall order trying to hold onto 23 incumbent-held seats compared to the Democrats’ 12.

Of those, just one Democrat is viewed as threatened, whereas half-a-dozen Republican seats are in play. For the vulnerable 2008 GOP Senators, the long-term results of the bailout are of far lesser consequence than the immediate fallout.

“They are on the front line,” a senior Senate Democratic aide said of the 2008 incumbents. “They are weighing their vote, not the outcome. Whereas [for the 2010 incumbents], you own the outcome.”

Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who is fighting for another term this year, acknowledged that incumbents both this cycle and next could pay a price for their votes on a Congressional rescue plan. But Coleman, who is among the candidates for NRSC chairman next cycle, said that in a sea of unattractive options, Senators recognize they have to try to find a remedy.

“People are shooting craps here,” he said. “It’s time for leadership, it’s time for statesmanship. … People are really scared.”

Asked with whom the fault will rest if Senators make the wrong choice, Coleman said: “If it doesn’t work out, there will probably be a lot of blame to go around.”

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