Sen. John McCain's decision to set politics aside to save an endangered financial bailout plan took a pounding Thursday from top Democrats and even some fellow Republicans.
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. McCain's own campaign said the session "devolved into a contentious shouting match."
The campaign statement suggested Obama was at fault. But Democrats were disdainful.
"John McCain did nothing to help," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who attended the meeting. "He only hurt the process."
Hours later, when negotiations hastily resumed in the Capitol, House Republicans refused to send a representative authorized to bargain.
Negotiations that 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, but McCain's level of interest was unclear.
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.
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.
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.
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, at least until the meeting ended in disarray.
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.