MANKATO - Sisters Emily Green and Alissa Witte of Mankato were waiting for lunch at the Wagon Wheel Cafe on Wednesday when U.S. Rep. Tim Walz stopped by, dropped to one knee and then explained why he ignored pleas from President Bush and his own Democratic Party leaders and voted against the government's $700 billion rescue of the financial industry.
Said Green, 24, a cosmetologist with $12,000 in student loans to repay: "I'm thinking, why isn't all of that money going to homeowners?"
Between late last week and Wednesday, Walz's office received 1,200 e-mails about the bailout, enough to repeatedly crash his House website.
"This is by far bigger than anything we've had: the war, the flooding," Walz said of constituents' reactions. "More personal. Much more engaged."
The eyes of Wall Street and the country are on House members like Walz, a first-term representative from Mankato, as they prepare to return to Washington and vote again on a modified rescue plan the Senate approved Wednesday night. Whether enough of them change their minds to pass a bill could determine the length and severity of the worst financial panic in decades.
"We are walking the tightrope without a net underneath," Walz said.
Republican Michele Bachmann is another Minnesota member of the House who voted no on Monday. She says she fielded calls and e-mails last weekend from White House staffers stressing the importance of the rescue package to the nation and urging her to approve it. But she wasn't persuaded.
"We were in essence told by the administration that we were looking at financial Armageddon and should we fail to act we could be perceived ... as bringing in a resurgence of 1929," said Bachmann. "I think the administration did a very poor job in making its case to Congress."
Besides, there was pressure in the other direction as well, she said. "We had 300 calls yesterday just in Minnesota," Bachmann, who was also back in the state, said Tuesday afternoon. "Ten-to-one against it."
THE topic at home
Walz has spent the past few days debating the Wall Street mess with everyone from passersby on Main Street in the largely rural First District he represents to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md.
A stop for gas led to an impromptu hourlong conversation. A bicycle workout at the gym produced another. When a resident e-mailed saying he was frustrated with Walz's no vote and was ambivalent about keeping his yard sign supporting Walz's reelection bid, the congressman called him up.
Despite voting against the majority of Democrats, Walz said he hasn't heard from Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., or the four members of the Minnesota delegation who voted for the proposal. Walz said he is working with Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota's Seventh District to reach a deal. Peterson also voted no, as did Republican Jim Ramstad. Minnesota Democrats Betty McCollum, Keith Ellison and Jim Oberstar and Republican John Kline voted for it.
Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama was rumored to be calling Democrats who voted against the proposal. Walz said he didn't get a call. He said he expected more pressure.
Regular folks have continued to make themselves heard.
Most callers to Bachmann's Washington office on Wednesday still opposed a bailout, said her spokesman, Stephen Miller.
Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, however, there were signs that public opposition was softening somewhat. House Republican Whip Roy Blunt said calls and e-mails to congressional offices that were running about 90 percent against the measure earlier now are coming in about 50-50, according to the Associated Press.
About 30 percent of those who e-mailed Walz urged him to vote for a bailout, said Meredith Salisbury, his communications director. The rest either were against a bailout of any kind or reluctantly endorsed one with a litany of changes.
The dozens of residents Walz met with Wednesday on a walking tour of grocery stores and cafes mostly listened without urging him in either direction on the proposal.
"You're on the line for the money," Walz told Green and Witte at the Wagon Wheel. "What I asked them is to give us a guarantee."
"We're all struggling already," Witte said.
At Pagliai's Pizza, Walz spoke with a pair of self-employed business owners who lamented giving money to rich CEOs who led failing firms.
"This can't be on the honor system," said Vilia Bloom of Minneapolis, who does business in the Mankato area. "They let the kids into the candy store, and the kids ate all the candy."
Struggled with decision
Before Monday's vote, Walz said he called economists and spoke with more than 100 constituents in his district, including bankers and business leaders. He said he struggled with his decision up to the last minute, leaning toward "no" on Sunday night and convinced by Monday.
Walz said he voted against the proposal because it failed to ensure that taxpayers wouldn't have to rescue Wall Street again.
The proposal needs to include more explicit language that will require Wall Street to bail itself out if the proposal isn't successful in five years, Walz said.
"I'm not going to put any risk, no matter how small, back on the taxpayer for something they did not do," he said. "This is not a vote to prop up Wall Street for one or two days. This is a generational type of bill. We're looking to get this right for our grandchildren."
Bachmann wouldn't rule out eventually voting for some version of a rescue if it also included provisions for changes in accounting practices and investing rules and also assurances by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to guarantee bank savings.
Bachmann said the initial package was rejected in part because of the administration's "failure to explain what the problem is, how we got here. You have to make a case for something.
"The administration didn't do that. They essentially gave us a 'trust me' point of view. We've gotten that all year."
Chao Xiong • 612-673-4391 Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210