President George W. Bush on Tuesday tried to reassure the United States that Congress will pass a plan to save the sinking U.S. economy even as no clear path existed for that to happen. He warned of painful, lasting damage for millions of people if lawmakers do not get moving.
"The reality is that we are in an urgent situation, and the consequences will grow worse each day if we do not act," Bush said.
The reality for the president, though, was that he has diminishing influence over the events unfolding around him.
He spoke one day after the House of Representatives jolted Washington, Wall Street and the watching world by rejecting a $700 billion economic bailout package. The bill had been painstakingly negotiated by leaders of both parties with the administration, and hailed by Bush as an "extraordinary agreement." Then it failed anyway.
The vote was close, 228-205, but two-thirds of the members from the president's own party rejected it. The defeat sent stocks plummeting, and the underlying problem remains unfixed: lending remains frozen because the financial system is choking on its own debt, the result of bad mortgages.
In Bush's favor, Congress agrees on the need to take some action, perhaps a revived version of the bill that died in the House.
"I assure our citizens _ and citizens around the world _ that this is not the end of the legislative process," Bush said during a four-minute statement on the financial crisis. Alluding to the messy fate of the bill, Bush downplayed the importance of exactly how a deal gets done.
"What matters," he said, "is that we get a law."
Without getting specific, the White House signaled a willingness to go along with changes to the bill, provided they address the problem in the financial markets and produce votes for passage. Congress was on break Tuesday for the Jewish New Year, but behind-the-scenes negotiations carried on.
In a joint letter to Bush on Tuesday, the leader of the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid welcomed the president's statement and promised to work with Republicans on a bipartisan bill "without further delay."
The two men who want Bush's job, Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, both telephoned the president. White House spokesman Tony Fratto said the two presidential contenders each offered ideas on what to do next, and reaffirmed that the crisis must be fixed.
Meanwhile, Bush's words marked the ninth straight day he has commented on the economic meltdown in some form. That includes a rare prime-time address to the nation last week, his most high-profile effort to win over lawmakers and a frustrated, confused public.
Yet the president has much working against him: low public approval, waning time in office, and a Congress that has shown it will act on its own terms _ particularly in an election year when constituents are hammering lawmakers' offices with angry comments about rescuing financial institutions.
Bush keeps canceling travel plans to stay in Washington and work on a deal. Fratto said Bush intends to do that "for as long as it takes to get this done."
Less clear was how much it was helping. Asked whether Bush's ability to influence others had disappeared, Fratto said: "I think there has always been far too much made of any one president's powers of persuasion on an issue."
He said the White House has won its share of policy battles, too, and that its focus remains on getting a solution in place.
White House officials say the huge plunge in the stock market on Monday, the day the House bill failed, may end up helping by swaying some lawmakers. Bush cited the falling market of a sign of what could come, warning that the economic damage will be "painful and lasting."
"For the financial security of every American," Bush said, "Congress must act."