The Washington Times - September 26, 2008, 08:00AM

What happened this afternoon at the White House was extraordinary.

The conventional wisdom going into today’s historic meeting with President Bush and the two presidential candidates was that a deal had been reached on the $700 billion economic rescue package.

That’s what Democrats were saying, and despite the warnings of a few Republicans, who was to say otherwise?

Sen. Richard Shelby, that’s who.

The press was expecting Barack Obama and John McCain to appear under the West Wing awning where a massive crowd of reporters and photographers from the White House press corps, as well as the McCain and Obama press pools, stood sheltered from the rain, expectantly.

But instead the Republican from Alabama emerged from the Cabinet Room meeting and blew any ideas of a deal out of the sky.

Waving sheets of paper that he said were letters from leading economists opposing the bailout, Mr. Shelby said the plan “will not solve problems, it will create more problems.”

“We’re rushing to judgment,” he said.

Asked about the deal announced by Democrats on Capitol Hill earlier in the day, he said, “that agreement is obviously no agreement.”

There was still great anticipation that Mr. Obama or Mr. McCain would emerge shortly. At the very least, Democratic leaders would come and explain what had happened in the meeting.

But then the McCain staff gave the order for the press traveling with their candidate to follow along. They were leaving. Moments later, the Obama campaign did the same.

Then, with a large press contingent still waiting, the spokesmen for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi walked out the door.

Instead of walking to the side to watch their lawmaker make a statement, the two men strode toward the mic, stopping a few feet short.

Reid spokesman Jim Manley, looking a bit flushed, spoke first in a shaky voice.

“I’m sorry to have to say this to everyone, but in light of the series of ongoing discussions, members have gone back to the Capitol to try and continue work on this issue,” he said.

“Senator Obama will be taking questions at the Mayflower Hotel in about ten minutes.”

Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly said that House Democrats would likely talk to the press after they met in a half hour.

Reporters volleyed questions at Mr. Manley as they walked back inside. He turned only to say that lawmakers “still have a lot of issues that need to be worked on.”

Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain then drove in their motorcades a few blocks north. Both of them did interviews with all five network TV stations, and the two major cable networks.

Mr. Obama conducted his interviews at the Mayflower, and then came to talk to reporters gathered in a conference room just before 7 p.m., after the networks asked him to do the interviews first so their nightly news broadcasts wouldn’t be upstaged by his press conference.

Obama staffers brought reporters bags of candy, pretzels, potato chips and bottled water while they waited for Mr. Obama to finish.

Mr. McCain did his interviews right across the street at one of the networks news bureaus.

When Mr. Obama finally came in to speak with reporters, he said that the president and his administration “still have some work to do with House Republicans,” who oppose the plan.

He got testy when asked whether Democrats should pass the bill over Republican objections, saying that his party was just as upset over the economic mess as the other party.

“This wasn’t happening on our watch,” he said.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill continued to meet into the evening.