Sen. Richard Shelby, the senior Republican and former chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, is noticeably absent from the financial bailout negotiations taking place on Capitol Hill this week.

The news that Sen. Robert Bennett, the panel's No. 2 Republican, would participate in the bipartisan, bicameral dealmaking on the most costly financial services measure Congress has ever considered came during a television interview Wednesday night, when House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank referred to the Utah Republican as the "acting ranking member."

On Thursday, Sen. Bennett joined the meeting held by House and Senate leaders on how to modify the Treasury Department's proposal to boost the economy by purchasing $700 billion of illiquid assets.

Earlier in the week Sen. Shelby called Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's plan "fatally flawed" and figured there was little point in participating in the negotiations.

"He didn't want to be involved with tinkering with a plan which might obligate him to vote for something that he probably isn't going to vote for," an aide for the Alabama Republican explained.

Talking to reporters after lawmakers reached a deal in principle Thursday, Sen. Bennett said: "I am a stand-in for Sen. Shelby. He decided that he was not going to participate and suggested to Sen. Dodd that I be called in on that basis."

Sen. Bennett said his focus during the talks was expediency and latitude. "My primary concern is that it be big enough to do the job, and that it be fast. I think we are going to achieve both of those two goals."

But evidently, Sen. Bennett's role only extends so far. He said he was not invited to a ceremonial meeting at the White House that President Bush hosted for congressional leaders and presidential candidates.

That meeting Sen. Shelby decided to take. "I'm going because I'm the ranking member of the Banking Committee and the Republican former chairman, but I'll tell you I have my doubts," he said.

Late Thursday, Sen. Shelby released his own plan. (See related story.)

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