Seeking an early legislative victory, President-elect Barack Obama prevailed Thursday despite eroding Senate support for the financial bailout fund he wanted to tap.
Amid the drama was a sense of celebration and nostalgia. The vote was the first for new Sen. Roland Burris, Obama's Democratic successor in Illinois, and the last for the vice president-elect, Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del.
There was urgency, too.
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Acting on Obama's behalf, President George W. Bush on Monday asked for release of the unspent $350 billion in the fund, known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP. Congress had 15 days to act if it was to block the request.
The appeal came with the program at perhaps its most unpopular on Capitol Hill. As a result, Obama had little time to secure votes in a test of wills even before his swearing-in Tuesday.
The Senate last fall voted 74-25 in favor of setting up the $700 billion fund. On Thursday, the vote was 52-42 to turn back an effort to block the remaining money in the pot from being spent.
There was public opposition to the bailout. More senators face re-election in 2010. And many are unhappy with the way the Bush administration has handled the first half of the fund.
Complicating the vote were Senate absences and the looming retirements of three senators who are joining the Obama administration. In fact, Biden resigned his seat at 5 p.m., shortly after the vote. The other two are Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., in line to be secretary of state, and Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., Obama's pick for interior secretary.
"I feel like I've been TARPed and feathered," Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second ranking Democrat, joked as the vote drew near.
"We have senators being sworn in, we have senator leaving. Some not here. There are variables I've never had to deal with before."
Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Jon Tester, D-Mont., did not vote in an arranged plan to neutralize the absences of Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. Brown and Kennedy would have voted to release the money; Tester and Hatch would have voted to block it.
Six Republicans, including two members of the GOP leadership, joined 45 Democrats and one independent to support Obama's position. Eight Democrats, one independent and 33 Republicans voted to block the funds. Six of the Democrats opposed to the idea had voted against the bailout in the fall and were joined by Sens. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Evan Bayh of Indiana, both of whom are up for re-election in 2010.
Among the Republicans voting to block the funds was Sen. John McCain, who vigorously supported the original bailout program as Republican presidential candidate last fall. Indeed, Republicans, 34 of whom had voted for the bailout in October, turned decisively against it. They objected when the current administration shifted from buying sour assets from financial institutions to directly injecting capital into banks. They also opposed using the money to help the auto industry, a step Bush took reluctantly after Congress refused.
In a last-ditch effort to win votes, Obama's top economic adviser, Larry Summers, said the incoming administration would spend between $50 billion and $100 billion to get control over rising foreclosures. Summers also said Obama has "no intention of using any funds to implement an industrial policy" — a reference to the auto aid. "Our actions will reflect the act's original purpose of preventing systemic consequences in the financial and housing markets," Summers wrote.
The vote coincided with a worsening climate for the nation's banks. But lawmakers have heard loud protests from constituents. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a moderate Democrat from Missouri, said she applies a grocery store test to constituent worries: "How many aisles can I get down the grocery story without people yelling at me.
"By far the financial rescue bailout is at the top of the hit parade," she said. "I couldn't even get to the produce section."
She ended up voting to let Obama spend the money.