WASHINGTON (AP) – Barack Obama and John McCain, in a show of unity over the economic crisis, will both attend a meeting Thursday with President George W. Bush to discuss a proposed bailout even as they clashed on whether the crisis should delay their first debate.
The meeting, called by Bush and also to be attended by key congressional leaders, will address a $700 billion plan the administration has proposed to bail out a struggling financial industry.
In a joint statement Thursday, the two candidates called the proposal flawed but said the effort to protect the U.S. economy must not fail. The plan, without which Bush warned the U.S. may fall into “a long and painful recession,” has met with stiff Congressional opposition from both Democrats and members of Bush’s own party, the Republicans.
In a surprise announcement Wednesday, McCain called for the candidates’ first debate, slated to be held Friday in Mississippi, to be delayed in order to address the financial crisis that has roiled U.S. markets and led the Bush administration to push for the unprecedented government bailout. McCain also said he would be suspending his campaign to deal with the crisis.
Obama, who seemed taken aback by McCain’s suggestion, rejected the call for a delay, saying that whoever wins the Nov. 4 election would be required “to deal with more than one thing at once.”
McCain’s announcement left the question of whether the first of three presidential debates to be held this fall will go forward, at a time when U.S. voters face increasing economic uncertainty.
During a televised address Wednesday, Bush pushed Congress to approve his bailout, saying that “our entire economy is in danger.”
In the 12-minute address, the president said without immediate action by Congress, financial panic might ensue. “It should be enacted as soon as possible,” the president said.
The heart of the plan involves the government buying up sour assets of shaky financial firms in a bid to keep them from going under and to stave off a potentially severe recession.
In their joint statement, McCain and Obama said now is the time to “rise above politics for the good of the country. We cannot risk an economic catastrophe.” But it was apparent that politics would play a role in any ongoing discussion of the economic crisis and whether to hold Friday’s debate.
The candidates’ conflicting positions arose after they spoke privately about how to facilitate congressional negotiations on the Bush administration’s bailout proposal.
But McCain beat Obama to the punch with the first public statement, saying the Bush plan to prop up the financial community seemed headed for defeat and a bipartisan solution was needed urgently.
“It has become clear that no consensus has developed to support the administration’s proposal,” McCain said. “I do not believe that the plan on the table will pass as it currently stands, and we are running out of time.” But Democratic Congressman Barney Frank, chairman of the House committee shepherding the bailout plan, said all sides were getting close to a deal and accused McCain of “trying to take credit for something that’s already happening without him.” McCain said he had spoken to President Bush, a fellow Republican, and asked him to convene a leadership meeting in Washington that would include him and Obama.
Bush, who rarely calls legislative leaders to push priority projects, took the unusual step of calling Obama personally about the meeting, said presidential spokeswoman Dana Perino.
Obama spokesman Bill Burton said the senator would attend and “will continue to work in a bipartisan spirit and do whatever is necessary to come up with a final solution.”
But Obama said earlier in the day that the debate shouldn’t be delayed, adding that the American voters needed to hear the candidates’ views “now more than ever.”
“It’s my belief that this is exactly the time when the American people need to hear from the person who, in approximately 40 days, will be responsible for dealing with this mess,” Obama said.
McCain said he was putting the good of the country ahead of politics, but his announcement was clearly a political move. It was an attempt to outmaneuver Obama on an issue, the economy, that has been hurting McCain as his rival continued to gain in polls.
While McCain said he would “suspend” his campaign, including advertising and fundraising, it simply will move to Washington where the four-term senator will remain in the spotlight, regardless.
Obama repeatedly stressed at his news conference that he called McCain first to propose that they issue a joint statement in support of a package to help fix the economy as soon as possible. He said McCain called back several hours later and agreed to the idea of a statement but also said he wanted to postpone the debate and hold joint meetings in Washington.
Obama said he suggested they first issue a joint statement showing bipartisanship.
“When I got back to the hotel, he had gone on television to announce what he was going to do,” Obama said.
Stephen Wayne, professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington, said he understood McCain’s attempt to put off the debate, which was intended to focus on foreign policy, because the U.S. economic crisis was likely to “swallow up McCain’s strength on international relations.”
In rejecting a debate delay, Obama also declined to join McCain in suspending campaign activities, and noted both he and his opponent had jets that could get them to Washington very quickly if their presence were needed. He said he had been in daily contact with congressional leaders and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, and didn’t see an immediate need for his presence.
The University of Mississippi, which was hosting the event, said it too was going ahead with preparations because it had “received no notification of any change in the timing or venue.” The debate commission also said it was moving forward.
McCain warned of dire consequences if Congress did not act quickly.
“If we do not act, ever corner of our country will be impacted. We cannot allow this to happen,” McCain said in a statement he read in ew York City. Obama said quick action was needed but cautioned it must be prudent. “We have to act swiftly, but we also have to get it right,” the first-term Illinois senator said.