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Angry day on Capitol Hill as proposal is examined

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - In the days since the Bush administration announced a $700 billion rescue plan for the nation's troubled financial markets, Rep. Donna Edwards has heard from hundreds of constituents.

Not a single one of them was in favor of the proposal, the Prince George's County Democrat said yesterday:

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"Members on both sides of the aisle are hearing very similarly from their constituents. And I think it begs the question of how quickly we need to proceed. I think it's much more important to get it right than to get it done fast."

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke warned yesterday that failure to act on a bailout proposal unveiled last week could send the economy tumbling into recession.

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But he met resistance from both parties. Members called the plan hastily drawn and, in the words of Senate banking committee Chairman Christopher J. Dodd, "stunning and unprecedented in its scope and lack of detail."

While approval of a proposal is expected before Congress leaves Washington for the year, some of Maryland's representatives called for more time to consider amendments and alternatives to the sweeping package proposed by Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr.

"I've been here 16 years now," said Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Western Maryland Republican, "and every time we have done something very quickly in Congress, we have not done something very well.

"I don't want to be driven into a panic mode where you're going to have to vote on something that nobody has read in its entirety. It will be a huge bill, and we have not had time to discuss it."

It was an angry day on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers found themselves caught between the concerns of constituents, demands of the administration and expectations of a market that seemed to lurch from gains to losses with every official pronouncement.

"We've got to get confidence back in the market," said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Baltimore County Democrat. "We have got to stop the bleeding."

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland said Democrats were working to bring legislation to the floor by the end of the week - but not before making some changes. Paulson is asking for $700 billion to buy up bad mortgages and other toxic debt, in the hope that taking the figures off the books of banks and other firms would restore the healthy flow of credit needed to keep the economy running.

"No one believes that we just ought to hand what the administration has asked for as a blank check," Hoyer said.

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He said the country's financial straits are the result of "regulatory neglect" and President Bush should go on national television to "explain to the American public why we are here [and] why it is necessary to take on the action that they have proposed."

"The philosophy of this administration was to take the referee off the field, that the private sector left to its own devices would provide for the most robust economy, largest production of jobs and largest economic success for America," he said. "That has proved to be in error."

Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County said, "Executives who drove these institutions into the ground can't bail out with golden parachutes. And we're going to insist on taxpayers having an ownership interest on the upside of what could happen here."

Rep. John Sarbanes of Baltimore County said any rescue package has to strike a balance.

"At the same time you're trying to give confidence to the markets, you've also got to make sure you give some confidence to the taxpayer that they're not getting ripped off," the Democrat said. "You build a very sound and appropriate oversight piece into this so that we're watching how these assets are purchased and what's being done with them."

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland said Congress would move with deliberate speed.

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"We want to get this done," the Democrat said. "You've got to give the administration the tools that they need. But they've got to be the right tools."

Bartlett is urging caution. For markets to work, he said, lenders and borrowers should suffer the consequences of their poor decisions.

"We're sending the message that you can behave irrationally, inappropriately and, if you're big enough, you won't fail because the taxpayers will come in and bail you out," he said. "I'm having a lot of trouble understanding ... borrowing $700 billion from the Japanese and the Chinese and then handing the payment book to our kids and our grandkids."

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said Congress needs to act to protect a middle class that has been threatened by the bad decisions of lenders and borrowers. But she said she would not be "stampeded into voting for this Bush administration bill."

"Do you remember after the horrific days of 9/11 when we all came to the floor and pledged our patriotism, and I said we needed to put politics aside because we needed to be the red, white and blue party?" the Maryland Democrat asked. "Well, they took advantage of that, and in that process we passed something like the Patriot Act. ... We created the dysfunctional Department of Homeland Security.

"Now, we're being asked to deal with the fiscal crisis, the financial crisis, and I am concerned that we're going to create a fiscal FEMA."


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