President-elect Barack Obama eventually will gain access to the second half of the $700 billion financial bailout fund — politics notwithstanding and more likely sooner than later.
The test is whether he can persuade enough members of his own party to support an extraordinarily unpopular program and avoid an embarrassing veto fight with a Democratic-led Congress at the outset of his presidency. A critical vote could come as early as Thursday.
Obama faces a handful of freshmen Democrats who opposed the bailout as they campaigned in 2008 and more than a dozen Democratic senators who are up for re-election in 2010, three of whom — Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Ron Wyden of Oregon — voted against the first installment of the money.
These Democrats certainly are weighing the political implications of their next steps.
Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., who supported the bailout last fall and is up for re-election in two years, described himself as "open-minded but skeptical." Said Bayh: "I don't get the sense of impending crisis today that I did at the time of original enactment. I need to be persuaded about need."
Republicans are mindful of politics too. They seem less eager to cooperate with an incoming Democratic administration, especially on an enormous government spending program that critics say Congress recklessly rushed through last fall without ensuring proper oversight.
Thus, the onus is primarily on Democrats saddled with a politically uncomfortable decision: They can side with voters generally angry over the sweeping government intervention of Wall Street, or they can line up with a president-elect of their own party looking to open his term with a clear-cut win.
Obama doesn't have a big margin for error. While most Democrats are likely to support releasing the second $350 billion, the president-elect needs every supporter he can get. A majority vote in the Senate to reject giving him the bailout money would trigger a vote in the House, where the idea is even less popular, and force an Obama veto.
"Sooner or later in all presidencies, senators and House members start getting nervous and may tend to go off the reservation," said Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas. "But I don't think they want to start voting against this president straight away."
Obama headed to the Capitol on Tuesday to make a personal appeal to Senate Democrats — a rarity for a president, let alone a president-elect. He has dispatched emissaries to Congress for days now to confer with lawmakers on the plan.
A senator for four years, Obama is using his knowledge of Capitol Hill and a transition team stocked with House and Senate veterans to maneuver for victory while assuring lawmakers that he views Congress as a coequal branch of government.
The cooperative tone will be equally essential for winning congressional approval of his upcoming economic rescue plan, expected to cost about $775 billion.
Analysts say he must change the bailout program — which he acknowledges is flawed — enough to make it palatable to Democrats who opposed it last fall.
"If you stumble out of the gate it's a terrible precedent for what's to come," said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University. That said, he added of Democrats, "I think they'll walk the plank for him."
Indeed, several Democrats emerged from Tuesday's meeting seeming to agree with where Obama was heading. They said he told them he would veto any successful effort to block the money and promised more oversight of the program.
"I feel much more comfortable," said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, a Democrat who is up for re-election in two years and who initially voted for the bailout. Even so, she said she hasn't yet decided on how to vote now amid outcry from her constituents.
One Democrat who voted against the bailout last fall, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, appeared frustrated with Obama's team on the matter.
At Peter Orszag's confirmation hearing to be Obama's director of the Office of Management and Budget, Nelson said no one has been satisfied with how the first $350 billion has been spent and added, "I think in this era of freshness and transparency that the new administration would want to come forth with detail instead of this mumbo-jumbo that's going on."
Among Democratic freshmen who objected to the bailout, Sens. Tom Udall of New Mexico and Mark Udall of Colorado voted against it when they were in the House, while Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina said, "It's a fix for Wall Street, not Main Street."
These and other lawmakers are keenly aware of the potential pitfalls of backing the program. They watched as Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican, almost lost his seat last fall over his supportive bailout vote.
Still, Obama has time — and a long-term political environment amenable to Democrats — on his side as he looks to secure Democratic support.
The 2010 midterm elections are still more than a year and a half away, and it's far from certain that this single vote will have staying power as a vulnerability. If the economy does, in fact, improve, backing the program could actually be seen as a good move.
At the same time, several incumbent Democratic senators — like Harry Reid of Nevada and Chuck Schumer of New York — are immensely popular in their home states.
And the political outlook is much worse for the GOP, with a spate of retirements — George Voinovich in Ohio, Kit Bond in Missouri and Mel Martinez in Florida — leaving open seats ripe for Democrats to seize.