Democrats battling to add restrictions to $700 billion bailout

WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats inched close to agreement Monday on the terms of a $700 billion rescue package to stabilize shaky financial markets, but continued to encounter White House resistance to key points.

"The Bush administration has called on Congress to rubber-stamp its bailout legislation without serious debate or efforts to improve it. That will not happen," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

People close to the negotiations said that at least three areas of disagreement remained: limits on executive compensation at troubled firms, the terms of oversight of the Treasury's management of the bailout and whether taxpayers would gain an equity stake in companies that benefit from the bailout so that taxpayers could share in the firms' later profits.

President Bush said in a statement that "Everyone recognizes that it's not easy to write a bill of this magnitude in a timely manner," and added he was confident that an agreement could be reached.

Another wrinkle may be developing, however: Some lawmakers are concerned that the plan is too complex and hard to explain to constituents, making them wary of quick approval.

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., the top Banking Committee Republican, was skeptical. "I am concerned that Treasury's proposal is neither workable nor comprehensive," he said in a statement.

"In my judgment, it would be foolish to waste massive sums of taxpayer funds testing an idea that has been hastily crafted, and may actually cause the government to revert to an inadequate strategy of ad hoc bailouts."

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., spent more than an hour with Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, and wasn't satisfied.

"It troubled me that they had some problems answering specific questions," he said.

Negotiators spent most of the day behind closed doors and publicly declared themselves cautiously optimistic. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., and House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass., still were aiming to enact a plan by the end of the week.

Several Republicans on the Senate Banking Committee joined Dodd for an afternoon news conference and said they also thought that a deal was possible by week's end.

The faster that Congress and Bush agree on a plan, they said, the better they can minimize the damage to the U.S. economy in the wake of a financial crisis that's had a massive ripple effect on Wall Street in recent weeks. Stocks were down sharply Monday — the Dow-Jones Industrial Average dropped 372.75 points — while oil prices soared by $16.37 a barrel to $120, heightening the urgency on Capitol Hill.

"I want to get something done here," Frank said. "This is not a time for point-scoring and chest-beating."

Dodd declined to discuss the fine points of the legislation but said, "We understand the sense of urgency. We don't have a lot of time. We want to act, but we also want to act responsibly."

Democrats appeared to agree on the broad parameters of a rescue plan. Among the key points:

  • A rescue package. The Treasury could purchase up to $700 billion in mortgage-backed assets from troubled firms. While the source of the funding isn't yet clear, the Treasury wants the U.S. debt limit, now about $9.7 trillion, to increase to $11.3 trillion. Any profits from later sales of troubled assets would be returned to the Treasury.
  • Tougher supervision. The administration's proposal says that the Treasury secretary's decisions "may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency."
  • Dodd wants the bailout operation supervised by a five-member board consisting of the Fed chairman, the chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the Securities and Exchange Commission chairman and two public members, one appointed by leaders of each major political party.

    Frank said any oversight board would be independent and would have investigative power but not operational authority. He said the Bush administration had agreed in concept, but the administration was said to be balking at the board's broad authority.

  • Foreclosure assistance. The federal government would gain more power to keep people in their homes; one way would be to let bankruptcy judges lower homeowners' monthly payments. "We'll now own a lot of these mortgages," Frank said.
  • Reid explained that wealthier homeowners often find it easy to seek mortgage assistance from bankruptcy judges, but that those who aren't wealthy cannot.

    "That makes no sense, and we should change it," he said, by giving bankruptcy courts the authority to "reach mutually beneficial arrangements to allow families to keep their homes and prevent more foreclosures."

    The administration's initial opposition on this point was said to be lessening.

  • Executive compensation. Democrats want the federal government to restrict big salaries and severance packages for executives at troubled firms helped by the federal bailout. "If we have bought your assets," Frank said, "no golden parachutes while we own your paper."
  • While the administration has resisted this, some Republicans appeared willing to compromise. Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., said he thought some constraints on executive compensation were appropriate and that it would be difficult to explain opposing such limits to voters.

  • Paying for the plan. "Democrats believe that in exchange for shouldering the enormous burden of the Bush plan, the taxpayers should keep any future economic rewards," Reid said. Democrats are pushing for an equity ownership stake for taxpayers in any firm that gets bailout help, so that taxpayers would share in any future firm profits.
  • That means, Reid added, that "this plan should not permit taxpayer money to purchase an asset at an inflated price exclusively for the benefit of private shareholders." The Bush administration was resisting the equity-stake proposition.