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KAI RYSSDAL: It wasn't just Bank of America and the Treasury Department that were talking TARP today. It was the hot topic in the Senate, too.
Back when it first passed the $700 billion package, Congress gave itself the right to stop the flow of money at the halfway point. And that is where we are now. With $350 billion out the door, a lot of lawmakers don't think there's much to show for it.
The Bush White House asked for the second-half of the money at the request of the president-elect. So even before taking office the incoming Obama administration has had to convince enough senators that things are going to change. Today, they did. The Senate approved releasing that extra $350 billion.
From Washington, Marketplace's John Dimsdale reports.
JOHN DIMSDALE: Despite the government's huge rescue effort, the banks' financial plight is getting worse. And there is a lot of legislative second-guessing in Congress, including by Oklahoma Republican Senator Tom Coburn, who voted for the original TARP.
TOM COBURN: I've been fooled once by this present administration. They didn't do what they said they were going to do. They haven't been transparent with how the money's been spent. And now we're asked again, Just trust us.
Instead of using TARP money to buy distressed mortgage assets from banks, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson shifted gears and bought equities in banks. The problem is, says Peter Wallison at the American Enterprise Institute, the banks' mortgage assets continue to fall in value.
PETER WALLISON: What should have happened, the government should have valued those assets in some way, and bought them off the balance sheets of the banks, replaced them with cash. If it had done that, then the banks would be much more confident about the quality of their own capital and they would be able to start lending.
Congress is looking for assurances from the next overseers of the TARP program, in the Obama administration, that they will target the remaining $350 billion at those mortgage assets. The incoming president's economic advisers have made written commitments to that and to broader accountability for the second half of the rescue money -- money that with today's Senate vote is now available to the Treasury Department.
In Washington, I'm John Dimsdale for Marketplace.