Tough Going for Tim Geithner on Capitol Hill

Lawmakers launch just the latest barrage of criticism at Treasury secretary.

March 12, 2009— -- Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner got such a torrent of angry criticism from Republican senators today that by the end of the hearing some Republicans lawmakers acknowledged how "tough" and "intense" it had been.

Acknowledged chairman Kent Conrad, D-ND, at the end of the hearing, "Mr. Secretary, you know, you can see what this is like. You know, it's pretty intense at times but, I think, very productive."

"Thank you for taking the job," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told him. "I know it's tough."

Graham added, "If you're looking for a way to serve the country, join the Marines or go to Treasury. I think they're both very difficult."

Graham's kind words, however, followed a firestorm of criticism as lawmakers repeatedly accused Geithner of failing to convince Americans that he had a plan to rescue the country's economy.

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"If you do have a plan, you haven't persuaded us yet, and until you persuade us, confidence won't come back," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., at today's Senate Budget Committee hearing.

Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., led the way in pressing Geithner to unveil the details of his plans to fix the nation's foundering financial system.

"Where is your plan to rescue the United States system?" he asked. "We've been waiting for that."

Bunning also ripped Geithner for his involvement, as chief of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, in creating the government's much-criticized Troubled Asset Relief Program.

"You were part of the problem. You were the head of the Federal Bank of New York, you sat in on the meetings of TARP when it was decided. In fact they give you credit for it being your plan," Bunning said.

When Geithner attempted to reply, Bunning interrupted him, impatient to move on to more questioning and find out why the government has continued to bail out the struggling insurance giant AIG.

"Where is the bottom line to the American taxpayer dollar-wise?" Bunning asked, holding up a copy of AIG's confidential memo to regulators obtained Monday by ABC News.

Geithner defended the $160 billion AIG bailout.

"The bottom line is we have to make sure, given the severity of the crisis… to do everything necessary to protect against the risk that we have a disorderly failure of a major financial institution. Just look back at what happened in the fall," Geithner said, referring to the economy's downward spiral when Lehman Brothers was allowed to fail last year.

'Producing a Nation Our Children Can't Afford'

"I did, I disagreed completely with what you did," retorted Bunning.

The Kentucky lawmaker didn't stop there, as he then pressed Geithner on whether the government is in fact nationalizing the banks, adding sarcastically, "We don't call it nationalization because that's a bad word."

Geithner, not grasping Bunning's stance or line of questioning, then asked, "Senator, are you speaking in favor of nationalization or against it?"

"That's really funny," Bunning replied in a mix of disbelief and disgust.

"You said I skirted it, but you weren't praising me?" asked Geithner.

"No, I was not," Bunning responded bluntly.

Another GOP member, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., also sounded off on Geithner, accusing him of being "in campaign mode" and sounding like presidential political adviser David Axelrod.

"Your statement today is a disappointment. I don't think it's an honest and responsive appraisal of the conditions that we are facing today. And I believe the secretary of Treasury has got to have the power that you need to exercise, need to get out of the campaign mode. I know you have responsibilities to the administration, but you sound a lot like David Axelrod to me."

"I've been in public service my entire professional life," noted Geithner. "Never worked on Wall Street, never worked for a financial institution."

"My obligation to the American people is to protect the financial security of this country and to protect our financial system," he added. "Not because we're here to do anything for banks. I wouldn't give a penny to help a bank."

Geithner's rebuttals didn't seem to placate lawmakers. Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., not so long ago set to become a colleague of Geithner's as Commerce secretary, ripped the administration's budget proposal.

"I don't see how your budget does anything other than put us on a road to producing a nation or putting us in a position where we get a nation that our children can't afford, and that is not productive."

Gregg gave some credit to Geithner.

Even Democrats Attacked Geithner

"I want to praise the secretary," Gregg said. "I recognize he's come in for a fair amount of criticism since he's become secretary, but I want to praise his efforts and the commitment of this administration."

Even Democrats like committee chairman Kent Conrad echoed criticism for the budget, warning, "We're on an unsustainable course."

Graham offered some sympathy, but left no doubt that Geithner would face another tough task if he eventually returns to Congress seeking more government funds to fix the financial crisis.

In response, the Treasury chief said he hoped Congress will "come together and do what's necessary to make sure the financial system is strong enough" if the administration does decide to make such a request.