WASHINGTON — House Republican leaders struggled Thursday to persuade some of their members to reverse course and support a $700-billion economic bailout package.
The fate of the measure remained uncertain as the House prepared for a climactic vote at midday today. Leaders of both parties said they were guardedly optimistic.
Top Democrats warned that they would not bring the bill to the floor unless they were certain of victory and insisted that it remained up to the Republicans to find more votes.
As the White House and congressional leaders maneuvered to drum up support, several lawmakers in each party said they were prepared to switch their votes. But others agonized amid a continuing deluge of calls from angry constituents.
A small group of Republicans said they were still hoping to amend the bill and reduce the amount of money the Treasury can spend on troubled assets of ailing financial firms to $250-billion from $700-billion. Democrats said they had no plans to allow amendments, which would require the Senate to vote again, further delaying the plan.
The Senate, in approving the bailout Wednesday after a stunning House defeat on Monday, added more than $150-billion in tax breaks, including incentives for solar, wind and other renewable energy sources. But it included offsets to pay for only $43-billion, infuriating fiscally conservative Democrats in the House.
"We may lose people," said the majority leader, Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md. "And I have informed the Republican leadership that that may be the case. Because frankly, the things that were added on and the way they were added on essentially appeal to Republicans."
After the House rejected the bailout on Monday, the market's gut-wrenching reaction offered lawmakers a glimpse of the consequences they could face if they don't approve the bailout package. The Dow Jones industrial average plummeted 778 points, or about 7 percent.
Since Monday, investors' angst over the fate of the legislation has contributed to a gloomy week on Wall Street, and a series of indicators have shown the outlook for the economy to be bleak.
Some analysts say the economy will not pick up until the middle of next year, even if the Bush administration succeeds on Capitol Hill today. And even if Congress approves the bailout, it may be too little, too late to unfreeze global credit markets. The package might not do much to help offset shrinking bank balance sheets or free up capital for nonfinancial companies, experts say.
Alarmed by signs of deterioration in the markets, the Senate rushed Wednesday to approve its plan, and federal regulators have eased accounting rules that some lawmakers say have crippled local banks.
The White House has called in troops from a long list of business and consumer groups whose members are sending a message to lawmakers that the financial crisis is real and hitting Main Street hard.
Over the past three days, groups as varied as AARP and the National Federation of Independent Business have organized campaigns showering hundreds of thousands of e-mails and phone calls on members of Congress to counter a wave of calls and e-mails that, before Monday's vote, was overwhelmingly opposed to a bailout.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also began running full-page newspaper ads highlighting what it described as a massive threat to the economy if the package is not passed.
"We were clearly outgunned on Monday," said the chamber's chief lobbyist, R. Bruce Josten. "We lost, no doubt about it. I have no intention of losing again."
As a trickle of lawmakers declared Thursday that they would switch their "no" votes to "yes," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said that she would not permit a repeat of Monday's chaotic scene and that she would cancel today's vote rather than watch the measure fail again.
"We're not going to take a bill to the floor that doesn't have the votes," Pelosi said. "I'm optimistic that we will take a bill to the floor."
President Bush urged House lawmakers to "get this bill passed," warning that the financial crisis "has gone way beyond New York and Wall Street."
Bush personally contacted about three dozen House members — most Republicans — on Wednesday and Thursday, according to White House spokesman Tony Fratto, who declined to say how many votes the president picked up.
"We feel somewhat optimistic that the bill has a good chance of passing," Fratto said.
By late Thursday, however, Democratic leaders were growing increasingly skeptical that the GOP would deliver many converts. Monday's vote was 228 to 205 — meaning House leaders need to sway at least a dozen votes to prevail.
To stave off another surprise defeat, House leaders enlisted the help of both presidential nominees, Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Barack Obama of Illinois. Black lawmakers said personal calls from Obama helped switch them to "yes." McCain, in Denver, predicted that the bill would pass the House.