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February 18, 2009 > In Washington, all about trust - or lack

In Washington, all about trust - or lack

By Laurie Kellman, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP), Feb 13 _ It's not bipartisanship that's on life support in Washington. It's basic trust and confidence.

The government this week was all about projecting reasons to believe things will get better:

That lawmakers will be able to handle the economic rescue quickly and effectively; that President Barack Obama can handle the crisis with a competent and steady team; that he can work productively with a Congress controlled by his own party.

Indeed, that Democrats in Congress can work with each other.

Instead, the rollout of Obama's economic plan bombed. His treasury secretary was pilloried for a less-than-surefooted debut. His second nominee for commerce secretary said, on second thought, no thanks.

And on Capitol Hill, the Democratic leader of the House let her Senate counterpart announce a deal on the history-making economic stimulus plan and convene negotiators to work out the last differences _ and then stood him up.

Why? She was following Ronald Reagan's famous dictum: Trust but verify.

``We wanted to see the language'' of the bill before endorsing it, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters the next day.

Pelosi and Reid did finally agree on the package _ $787 billion to get consumers spending and companies rehiring. And Congress moved to pass it Friday so Pelosi and other lawmakers could split for official trips around the globe.

Like anything that becomes the law of the land, this legislation was succeeding because it was in a lot of people's interest. Perhaps, as White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel suggested, its very passage should reassure investors and consumers.

But in the process, Washington did not exactly radiate the confidence its leaders are trying to inspire.

Obama's presidency and the 111th Congress are only a few weeks old, wrestling with an economic meltdown beyond the experience of anyone charting the course to recovery.

Lawmakers are ill-tempered because their constituents are angry and letting them know about it. Some key relationships are new or rejiggered because of last fall's elections.

The jitters are showing everywhere, from the false starts to not-for-attribution sniping.

Obama asked the nation to trust him to slow the economic slide. But three weeks into his administration, he's still getting his footing.

Timothy Geithner, the chief of Obama's economic team, looked nervous and younger than his years this week when he rolled out a bank bailout plan that lacked the details Wall Street wanted. The stock market tanked.

And late Thursday, Obama's second nominee for commerce secretary, Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, abruptly withdrew from consideration, citing ``irresolvable conflicts'' on key policy items. Obama's first choice for commerce, his nominee for health secretary and his pick as a federal efficiency overseer all had withdrawn earlier.

Obama joked about the latest problem, wondering aloud in Springfield, Ill., if Abraham Lincoln had ever thought about the commerce job. White House chief of staff Emanuel acknowledged that some might see the administration's hiring problems as amateur hour, but he suggested Bill Clinton's transition, which included Rahm, was even shakier.

But whatever the spin, the situation hardly was a confidence builder for the nation.

Neither was the way Congress was dealing with the bank bailout.

The first, deeply unpopular $700 bailout bill last year contained no strong requirements for recipients to account for the taxpayer money. That was Congress' doing.

But members of the House Financial Services Committee took it out this week on eight CEOs of the nation's biggest banks who had been the first to receive the bailout money.

It almost didn't matter what the banking titans had to say for themselves at a televised hearing. They were the faces behind a housing crisis that escalated into a recession that makes it hard to raise any kind of cash, let alone campaign contributions. And every member of the House is up for re-election in 2010.

House members ripped into the former masters of the universe.

One suggested they should be thrown in prison.

``America doesn't trust you anymore,'' railed Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass.

Many Americans feel the same way about Congress. And some members of Congress feel that way about each other.

On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, his leadership team and moderate Republicans at his side, triumphantly announced on live television that the House and Senate had agreed on new legislation to bail out troubled industries and boost homeowners.

Pelosi did not respond.

Reid then lit the stately parlor named for Lyndon Baines Johnson for television and instructed his Senate negotiators to meet there with their House counterparts to iron out any remaining issues.

The senators waited. And waited. Pelosi, meanwhile, summoned Reid to her office for a talking-to. Finally, she signed onto the agreement, though that didn't stop the sniping between her aides and Reid's.

``One person's understanding of a spoken description might vary from another's,'' she said. ``We wanted to see it. We wanted to remove all doubt that the purpose of the money was reflected in the language that was there.''

Reagan, or the government's euphemistic ``abundance of caution.''

``I don't want to come to you later and say, 'We thought it said yes and it said no,''' Pelosi said. ``It said what we want it to say, and we're very pleased with that outcome.''

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