WASHINGTON — Congressional negotiators said they were close to agreement Saturday on a $700-billion plan aimed at shoring up the U.S. financial system, and were meeting late into the evening in hopes of striking an accord that could be ratified by the House as soon as today.
Democrats and Republicans from both chambers met with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson through the afternoon in an effort to forge a compromise on a variety of outstanding issues, including how quickly the government should make money available for the program and whether participating firms should be required to limit executive pay.
Talks also focused on a new issue: how to cover the cost of the program so taxpayers don't get stuck with the bill.
Under the administration's proposal, the government would buy assets that have lost much of their value from faltering financial institutions in hopes of restoring investor confidence. That could ease the credit crunch that has seized global markets and made it much harder for businesses and ordinary people to borrow money.
Administration officials have stressed that the ultimate cost of the bailout would be much less than $700-billion because the government would eventually sell the assets it purchased and recover most, if not all, of what it spends.
All parties to the talks have agreed on at least one point: the need for an oversight board to ensure the program is run properly. The final details of the board remained unclear Saturday night, and most lawmakers said it was too early to know who is likely to run the board.
Saturday, Democrats said they were pressing hard for further taxpayer protections, including a fee that would be imposed on the financial services industry if after five years the government had not fully recouped its money.
"We believe that the taxpayer should not be left holding the bag at the end of the day, and we've proposed a way to address that," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., a member of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's leadership team.
Paulson and some Republican lawmakers were said to be cool to the idea.
The focus on limiting taxpayer exposure may help rally support in Congress, where lawmakers have been reluctant to back the unpopular bailout measure. But it could unnerve Wall Street, where investors are seeking the largest possible program with the fewest strings attached. They also hope lawmakers approve it before Monday's opening bell.
President Bush, who has become increasingly involved in discussions about the financial crisis after having first left matters largely to Paulson, attempted to address criticisms from the right and left that the plan would bail out irresponsible financiers while doing nothing for regular Americans.
"The rescue effort we're negotiating is not aimed at Wall Street — it is aimed at your street," Bush said.