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Frank Seeks
Bipartisan Housing Rescue Deal

Frank Seeks
Bipartisan Housing Rescue Deal

Barney Frank does not have time for chitchat. The quick-witted, sharp-tongued Massachusetts Democrat who just crafted a massive rescue response to the housing crisis is not your typical, backslapping politician.

Barney Frank does not have time for chitchat.

The quick-witted, sharp-tongued Massachusetts Democrat who just crafted a massive rescue response to the housing crisis is not your typical backslapping politician.

But the 68-year-old chairman of the House Financial Services Committee can count votes and cut deals, and as both parties search for a politically palatable way to keep people in their homes, those talents are paying off.

Frank's plan to have the government take on as much as $300 billion in new loans for strapped borrowers is drawing bipartisan support as the House moves toward a vote on it Wednesday.

That's thanks in part to the Harvard-educated Frank's deep understanding of the markets, say lawmakers, aides and lobbyists who have worked closely with him.

It's also testament to the liberal Democrat's unlikely alliance with two top players who owe their jobs to President Bush: Treasury secretary Henry M. Paulson and Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke.

Most of all, though, it is proof of Frank's success at reaching out to Republicans, offering key concessions without sacrificing the core of his plan, and selling the end result to a deeply divided Congress.

The White House on Tuesday threatened that President Bush would veto Frank's bill, praising the plan's goals but calling it ''overly burdensome and prescriptive,'' and labeling it a bailout.

''It will be a package, like any package, in which nobody may like every single thing in it -- except maybe me,'' Frank said of the housing rescue in a recent interview. ''But people will be willing to accept the whole package because they want something.''

That was true for Republican Representative Steven C. LaTourette of Ohio, who was one of 10 in his party to break with Bush and GOP leaders to back the plan when it went through Frank's panel last week. ''He's struck a good balance,'' LaTourette said of Frank.

LaTourette said Frank sold him by making the plan voluntary and pointing out that it is projected to help hundreds of thousands of homeowners at a cost of only $2.7 billion over the next five years. It didn't hurt that Frank also struck a deal with LaTourette to steer $150 million more to Ohio as part of a separate $15 billion measure to buy and rehabilitate foreclosed property in the hardest-hit areas.

''He's a shrewd vote counter, and he also wants a product that can get bipartisan support,'' LaTourette said.

Not all Republicans like the measure. GOP leaders strongly denounced the bill early Tuesday, calling it a bailout for scammers and speculators. The White House followed up with its veto threat.

But the measure appears to have the tacit blessing of Paulson, who has declined to say anything negative about it, and Bernanke, who on Monday called for just such a plan.

Frank may be best known for being one of the first openly gay members of Congress. Jewish and from Bayonne, N.J., he's never had much time for the courtly customs of the political world. An early campaign poster during his first days in politics read ''Neatness Isn't Everything. Re-elect Barney,'' under a picture of him looking rumpled.

After 27 years in the House he has cleaned up considerably. He now keeps his salt-and-pepper hair trimmed short, sports a stylish pair of spectacles, and favors neat-looking striped ties. But he's kept his irreverence and still has no patience for what he considers time-wasting politeness.

Frank has thrown lobbyists out of his office for coming by to say thank you. ''Write me a letter,'' he will snap. He routinely cuts off colleagues mid sentence -- and that's when he's agreeing with them.

''What don't you understand about yes?'' Frank demanded of Rep. Melissa Bean, a Democrat from Illinois, who as a rookie congresswoman had gone to her panel chairman to ask to take the lead on a bill.

''Speaking with Barney is almost like writing in shorthand, because he just nets to the end -- let's just cut to the chase,'' said Bean, a centrist who says she appreciates Frank's pragmatism and work ethic.

A frequently dispensed piece of advice, Bean said, is: ''If he barks at you, don't be offended. If he's biased against anything, it's stupidity.''

Frank's crustiness can come off as arrogance, and those who deal with him regularly know to come prepared.

''When you work with Chairman Frank, you have to be knowledgeable, organized, and succinct,'' said Floyd Stoner of the American Bankers Association.

The style is similar to that of the business executives whom Frank's panel oversees, and it's been the basis for an effective relationship with Paulson, a former head of the investment bank Goldman Sachs.

Frank said he has more in common temperamentally with Paulson's ''let's get right to it'' style, compared to the more ''formal'' Bernanke. ''But all three of us share an understanding [that], sometimes, reality governs, and that's been the basis for the relationship,'' Frank said in an interview on C-SPAN's Newsmakers.

Frank hasn't always been so friendly to the rival party. When Democrats were in the minority, ''he was the person you sent to the floor when you wanted to argue with the Republicans,'' said Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf, a former senior House leadership aide.

A master of House rules, Frank would provide a withering counterpoint to the GOP, lacing his parliamentary parries and policy arguments with acerbic wit.

''I remember being scolded on the floor by Barney Frank about our party's lack of adherence to core principles of economic conservatism,'' said former representative Dick Armey, a Texas Republican who earned notoriety for calling Frank ''Barney Fag'' -- which he later said was a slip of the tongue. ''And I would stand there and say to myself, Dang it, I hate it when he's right.''

Since becoming Financial Services chairman last year, Frank has surprised many with his appetite for bipartisan compromises.

''He kind of has a gruff outward exterior and he doesn't suffer fools gladly, but at the same time he's incredibly well-respected,'' said former Republican congressman Michael G. Oxley of Ohio, who chaired the committee. ''He's at heart a problem-solver and a lot less partisan than many people think.'' (AP)

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