Strange Days

September 25, 2008 11:11 p.m.

It is no small irony that after years of being at odds with the right wing of his own party, John McCain is staking his campaign for the presidency on it.

During the late afternoon meeting at the White House (a meeting which was McCain’s idea), McCain sat silently at the table until nearly the end, according to a Hill source who was briefed on the meeting. At that point, I’m told, McCain vaguely brought up the proposal being pushed by the Republican Study Committee, the group of House conservatives that is bucking the GOP leadership. But McCain didn’t offer any specifics and didn’t necessarily advocate for the plan, according to the Hill source.

Responding to McCain, Treasury Secretary Paulson said that the RSC proposal was unworkable, my source says, at which point McCain didn’t really advocate for it or state his own position. The meeting adjourned soon after, amid confusion over where negotiations could go next.

Democrats were incensed. “It sounds like Sen. McCain has sided with the House Republicans who want to start with a completely different approach,” Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) told Reuters later, after being briefed on the meeting.

The McCain campaign this evening issued a statement denying he had torpedoed the negotiations, but it’s not just McCain’s behavior at the meeting that suggests he’s sided with House conservatives.

As The Hill reports, Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-AL), the ranking Republican on the House Financial Services Committee, presaged the day’s events when he told reporters that he’d had breakfast with McCain’s advisers on Wednesday morning and talked by phone with McCain Wednesday night:

“We would prefer a loan or supplying insurance,” Bachus told reporters. “These are the ideas Sen. McCain tried to maximize. He feels strongly we have to design a program where taxpayers won’t lose.”

In fact, House conservatives did float a mortgage insurance proposal today, though it’s exact outlines were apparently a mystery to Democrats and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson alike.

McCain also met during the day with Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH), but I’m told that Boehner is ready to sign off on the plan negotiated by Paulson and the Democrats — he simply doesn’t have control over his caucus (although other reports place Boehner as aggressively leading the charge).

This evening on Fox, McCain spokesperson Nancy Pfotenhauer was surprisingly solicitous of the arguments put forward by House conservatives:

You kind of have the Administration talking to the Democrats in Congress but maybe not working as closely as they should have with the Republicans. … I don’t know why people are shocked that that’s how it played out tonight. …

The conservative Republicans have been very, very focused on taxpayer protections, and one thing that Sen. McCain has been clear on from the beginning is that that’s absolutely essential. …

So McCain’s gambit to shake up the election by “suspending” his campaign and returning to Washington to hammer out a deal at a big White House meeting ends up killing at least for now the hastily negotiated bailout plan that Treasury and Congress had hammered out. Strangely, almost inexplicably — or maybe just desperately — McCain has thrown his lot in with the same conservatives who see him as the perfect example of what is wrong with their party. Strange days indeed.

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