Top Democrats in Congress ridiculed his role after a chaotic end to a White House summit meeting that McCain had requested, and which included Democratic nominee Barack Obama.
"John McCain did nothing to help," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who attended the meeting. "He only hurt the process."
Negotiations that for days had centered on a $700 billion plan the Bush administration presented last Saturday seemed to fall apart. An alternative plan drafted by conservative House Republicans was discussed at the White House meeting, and McCain's level of interest was unclear.
"As far as I know, Sen. McCain has not endorsed this plan," said Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., its chief sponsor. A senior McCain official said McCain hasn't signed on to any proposal yet.
Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson sped to Capitol Hill to try to revive or rework the proposal the administration says Congress must approve quickly to stave off economic disaster. Congressional leaders were to meet with the economic chiefs into the night, and were not happy about it.
"We don't want presidential politics involved in this," Reid told reporters.
Even the House's Republican leader, John Boehner of Ohio, passed up a chance to praise McCain's leadership powers shortly before the two met in the Capitol at midday Thursday. Asked by reporters if McCain could help win House Republican votes for the proposed package, Boehner shrugged and said, "Who knows?"
Boehner later said in a statement that McCain "has a vital role to play in this process, and he has a history of working together with both parties to make things happen."
Other Republicans gave McCain more credit. "They got something done this morning only because McCain came back," said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. DeMint later called the administration's proposal "a trillion-dollar Band-Aid that does not contain a single item that will stimulate our economy."
President Bush's biggest worry is House Republicans, many of whom are balking at his plan. Several said it was essential that both McCain and Sen. Obama back some legislative package together.
"If McCain and Obama would stand together and take this off the table" as a sharply partisan issue, then wary House Republicans might get on board, said Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn.
Framing the issue in those bipartisan terms, however, complicates McCain's bid to differentiate himself from Obama on leadership issues.
In truth, McCain has faced a no-win situation for days. To support the bailout or a similar plan could put him at odds with millions of voters and many House Republicans at a time his campaign is sliding in the polls. Also, McCain has struggled to distance himself from the unpopular Bush, and embracing the administration's plan clearly would not help.
Obama has an easier path. No one will accuse him of being a Bush clone even if he ends up siding with the administration. And Democrats in general are more receptive to government regulation of powerful institutions.
McCain's other option was worse. Opposing some version of a financial rescue plan would open him to fierce accusations of walking away from a national crisis. And if a congressional impasse triggers more Wall Street catastrophes, as the administration says it would, the criticism would be still worse.
McCain's only real option was to say, "I'm the leader, I'm going to put country first," said Republican consultant John Feehery.
McCain tried to do that Wednesday. Going before TV cameras shortly before Obama did, he signaled his likely support for some version of the costly plan and urged Bush to convene a meeting including Obama. Bush did so, giving McCain and his backers a chance to claim some leadership credit.
"It seemed like this deal yesterday was very close to dead," McCain adviser Mike DuHaime told Fox News on Thursday. "I think you've seen tremendous progress since he made that announcement."
He noted that Reid earlier had called on McCain to take a stand on the bailout issue, only to rebuke him when he took a larger role.
Democrats were scornful. Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, the chief House Democrat on the bill, said late Wednesday, "all of a sudden, now that we are on the verge of making a deal, John McCain airdrops himself to help us make the deal."
McCain met separately with House and Senate Republicans in the Capitol Thursday, before the White House session. He did not attend meetings where the bailout legislation was being hashed out.
Even if McCain fully embraces a bailout package, many Republican candidates elsewhere on ballots will not go along. Rep. Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican who is retiring, said he probably will vote for whatever plan emerges.
But the Republican running to replace him, LaHood said, "is running against it. Everyone's running against it."
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