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A Tale of How Rosh Hashanah Played a Role in the Bailout Vote

Rosh Hashanah: a time for contemplation? Of course.

A time for Jewish lawmakers to stop and reconsider how to save Wall Street from itself? Makes sense — four Jewish lawmakers changed their votes over the holiday.

A time to heed the Jewish supplications of Newt Gingrich?

Yes, it got that weird last week.

The first vote on the $700 billion bailout bill was defeated on the eve of the Jewish New Year, and some lawmakers used Rosh Hashanah as a handy excuse when it came to not playing ball.

U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the minority whip in the House of Representatives, counted the holiday’s onset as one of the factors for his failure to whip the necessary number of Republican members to vote yea.

“We could have eventually gotten them, but not in the time available,” Blunt, whose wife is Jewish, told The Washington Post.

House leaders, he said, wanted to push the vote through before sundown so as not to leave Wall Street hanging for two days.

“Nonsense,” Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the Jewish chairman of the House Financial Services Committee and the bill’s main shepherd, told JTA. “They were looking for all kinds of excuses to explain why they couldn’t get the votes.”

The bill was ready to go on the afternoon of Sept. 29, Frank said. The holiday began that evening.

Hugely unpopular at that point, the measure failed, 225-208. And the Jewish holiday wasn’t spared in the yom tov morning quarterbacking.

Gingrich, the former House speaker and sometime Republican presidential hopeful, told Politico that the bill’s failure on the eve of Rosh Hashanah would allow lawmakers pause for “contemplation” during the Jewish holiday. The ex-Georgia congressman backed the bill.

Maybe it worked. Enough members changed their mind in time to vote for the package by Oct. 3, and it passed, 263-171.

Among those who changed their votes were four Jewish members, Reps. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) Overall, 20 Jewish lawmakers voted in favor in the first vote and 24 backed the measure in the second poll.

It wasn’t substantive changes to the bill that led to the vote changes, according to Frank; it was the changed circumstances of the economy.

California teetered on the verge of bankruptcy and asked its members to switch their votes. Calls to congressional offices, which had opposed the bill almost unanimously before the Monday of the first vote, started to turn in favor as economic experts predicted disaster for the markets — and down the line for pension plans — in the wake of the bill’s initial failure.

“The main reason people changed their votes was that the economic reality was so bleak on Tuesday,” Frank said.

Democrats in swing districts where Republican challengers were casting the bill as a blank check for fat cats were told to ignore the whip and vote their political interests, party insiders said. Those included Giffords and Yarmuth, who changed their votes, and fellow Jewish Reps. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.) and Steve Kagen (D-Wis.), who voted no both times.

Rosh Hashanah still reared its head in news stories. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), the fourth ranking Democrat in the House, told The Chicago Tribune that he asked his rabbi for leave to work through the holiday. The rabbi assented, saying that allowances were made when the nation’s welfare is at stake.

Emanuel told the Tribune that he chided the rabbi, “Does that mean you have a 401(k)?”

References to the holiday took on a nastier mien in the case of Giffords, whose challenger attacked her for returning to Tucson. State Sen. Tim Bee accused her of coming home to campaign when she was needed in Washington to help rescue the bailout bill.

Giffords’ campaign accused Bee of insensitivity, noting that she was returning for Rosh Hashanah. Bee withdrew his accusation, calling it an “honest confusion.”

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