Anti-incumbent sentiment prompts surge of populist legislation in Senate

Jon Ward Contributor
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Building anti-incumbent sentiment has fueled a slew of populist measures in the Senate this week.

On Tuesday at the Capitol, Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democrat from Vermont and self-described Socialist, walked out of a press conference where he celebrated the overwhelming passage of his measure to audit the Federal Reserve. In the hallway he ran smack into Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who is running as hard to the right as he can as he prepares for a tough primary election in August.

McCain was waiting for Sanders to finish his press conference celebrating the passage of a measure that passed 96-to-0, fueled in large part by intense anti-government, anti-bailout, anti-Wall Street fervor throughout the country.

Passage of a fed audit amendment (even if it is a one-time audit) would not have been thought possible even weeks ago, but a series of primary and special elections in recent weeks – particularly the loss of incumbents in Utah and West Virginia this week, and tough challenges for incumbents next Tuesday in Arkansas and Pennsylvania – have reminded lawmakers in Washington that the voters are coming for them.

McCain, having sensed an opportunity to push an issue that many conservatives care deeply about, stepped forward with an amendment to the financial regulation bill that would add reform of failed mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to the overhaul.

“It is reckless to go to the American people with a plan that does not fix Fannie and Freddie,” McCain said at the press conference.

He went to the floor and railed against Democrats who dared oppose his measure to move Fannie and Freddie – which have already lost $145 billion and are poised to hemorrhage hundreds of billions more in taxpayer dollars – off the government’s books.

McCain said that if the Senate passed regulatory reform without his amendment, it could not “look the American people in the eye and say we have reformed the financial system in America.”

“Don’t wonder why the American people are in virtual peaceful revolt, when we continue to pour good money after bad, to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars, without reforming the institutions that caused it,” McCain thundered.

But McCain’s amendment went down with 56 senators, all Democrat, voting against it. Democrats Evan Bayh of Indiana and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin joined 41 Republicans in voting for the measure.

A few moderate Republicans – notably Scott Brown of Massachusetts – voted in favor of an alternative to McCain’s amendment that authorized the Treasury Department to study the problem. That amendment passed 63-to-36.

Moments later on the Senate floor, Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Colorado who is in his own tough reelection fight, came to the floor with an amendment to shrink the original $700 billion TARP bailout fund by $150 billion.

Bailouts of large firms, Bennet said, “doesn’t make sense to most people in Colorado, and it certainly doesn’t make sense to anybody running a business.”

Bennet’s amendment, which says all of the $180 billion paid back so far must go to reducing the national debt, is not as tough or stringent as a Republican-sponsored bill that would have ended TARP immediately (it was scheduled to end last year) and paid back the more than $300 billion in unobligated funds toward the debt along with the money that’s been paid back.

In fact, Bennet’s amendment allows Treasury to use up much of the money that is currently still unobligated up until the end of this year.

But the amendment passed by a voice vote in the Senate, giving it unanimous support.

Bennet afterward said the passage had sent “a message — loud and clear — that taxpayers will no longer be on the hook for Wall Street bankers’ bad decisions.”

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