OXFORD, MISS. — Despite the furor caused by Republican John McCain's return to Washington to join the $700-billion financial bailout negotiations, his participation in the talks has so far done little more than spark a contentious debate over whether he has helped or hurt the process.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) insisted that McCain's role during a bipartisan White House meeting Thursday was "entirely constructive."
McCain, he added, "had suggestions. We're taking those into account, and we're going forward. And I think his goal is that we get a result."
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters in Washington that McCain had contributed little and largely used the negotiations as a media event.
"The insertion of presidential politics has not been helpful," he said. "It's been harmful. A few days ago, I called on Sen. McCain to take a stand, to let us know where he stands on the issue, on this bailout. But all he has done is stand in front of the cameras."
The White House meeting, which McCain helped arrange, was attended by President Bush, Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and congressional leaders.
McCain sat silently for more than 40 minutes, participants said later, offering comments only at the end.
No agreement was reached, and each side accused the other of acting in bad faith and scuttling a possible deal for partisan advantage.
Democrats in the meeting said McCain played a shockingly passive role as Obama, Paulson and others tried to make sense of a last-minute proposal unveiled by House Republicans just before the meeting.
"Several of us asked what was the plan," said House Banking Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.), one of the leading negotiators. "We also couldn't find out whether Sen. McCain was actively supporting this or not."
Frank said that he and others asked McCain directly if he was involved and that McCain replied: "I think all members have a right to pursue their concerns."
McCain did not suggest how he thought the impasse could be overcome or ask any questions, another participant said.
McCain's top economic advisor, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, complained to NPR that much of the meeting "was not constructive. I mean, there was a lot of finger-pointing. People were yelling at one point. It was a meeting that did not meet the senator's goals, which was to make progress toward an agreement."
A senior McCain aide was more caustic, arguing that Democrats in the White House meeting had shouted and tried to provoke McCain into losing his temper. McCain did not, he pointed out, instead letting Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), the House minority leader, take the lead.
The aide described the meeting as a Kabuki theater in which all sides played scripted roles and that cleared the air for more substantial talks this weekend, in which McCain is expected to participate.
Times staff writer Noam N. Levey, traveling with the Obama campaign, contributed to this report.