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Fool Me Once

Not even the hugely popular President-elect seems capable of quelling lawmakers’ apprehension about releasing the second half of the original $700B bailout monies. It seems they are all too aware of how unpopular the plan is. Moreover, since no one can quite figure out how the first half of the money has been used, the urgent cries for releasing still more billions is running into a buzz-saw of objections and complaints. And those are the Democrats:

Barack Obama’s attempt to grease release of the second portion of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout hit a snag Monday when House leaders signaled they’d prefer more specific strings attached.

The House positioning came just hours after Obama’s top economic adviser, Lawrence Summers, sent a letter to top congressional leaders to quell opposition to the additional funding from the Senate, which was aired during a two-hour meeting Sunday on Capitol Hill.

.   .   .

Still, House Democrats were not so easily satisfied. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) plan to press forward with legislation he wrote that would specify in great detail how the Obama would have to use the additional funds. The bill is expected to come to the House floor as early as Wednesday.

“We should not allow our disappointment at the Bush administration’s poor handling of the TARP program to prevent the Obama administration from using the funds in more appropriate ways,” Frank said in a statement. His bill, he said, “sets forth the conditions we believe are necessary to assure that the public gets the full benefit of these funds.”

Frank also is convening a hearing Tuesday to discuss how the new Obama administration should use the remaining $350 billion.

“Even though we have a lot more faith in the Obama administration, people have been burned before,” said an aide to a Democrat on Frank’s panel, explaining the desire to move forward with legislation.

And the Republicans? They are grinning, enjoying the prospect that Democrats will now have to justify the bail-a-thon to voters who are increasingly wary of this fiscal game of three-card monte:

Meanwhile, Republican leaders in both chambers sought to put the ownership of the potentially unpopular move squarely on Democrats’ shoulders.

House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) pledged to oppose the request from President George W. Bush to release the funds, saying he needs to see proof from Obama that the economy really needs the additional funds.

And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Monday evening that he “would be hard-pressed to support additional funding for the TARP without sufficient assurances this money will not be wasted, misspent or simply used for more industry-specific bailouts.”

The Republicans are, albeit belatedly, rediscovering their lost frugality. They are re-establishing themselves as the party most responsive to voters’ concern about the use of billions in taxpayers’ money for dubious and uncertain purposes. Critics might say they have “lost credibility” on the issue. But voters’ memories are short and they want to know how lawmakers are behaving now. Republicans would be wise to stick to their new found sobriety, and force the Democrats to scrounge up enough votes on their own to support release of the bailout funds.

That’s what being in the majority is all about–getting the votes and taking responsibility for one’s own party’s political actions. Republicans no longer need to defend and facilitate the incumbent president’s policies, with which they vehemently disagree, out of partisan loyalty. This is their time for “change”–the time to act with principled objection to silly policies and suggest their own alternatives. It’s not quite the same as winning and governing, but freedom from obligations to actually pass legislation has its perks.


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