Who comes after Paulson?

The Bush administration's proposal to give the Treasury secretary broad discretion to spend $700 billion to rescue the ailing financial system comes with a hitch: No one knows who will be asked to succeed Henry Paulson, the plan's architect, on Jan. 20.

The bailout plan not only calls for Congress to authorize a massive amount of money to help Wall Street firms, but also gives virtually unbounded discretion to the secretary to spend that money that “may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.” Paulson has said he supports an oversight board.

This week, some on Capitol Hill, where skittish nerves over the size and scope of the bailout have stalled the plan, encouraged the presidential nominees to step forward and discuss who they would want as Treasury secretary.

Sen. Robert Casey Jr., D-Pa., a close ally of Democrat Barack Obama, said he hoped that at tonight's debate the candidates would face this question: “Describe for us, and use names if you want, the sort of person who would be in your Cabinet, particularly Treasury.”

Without pinning the candidates down, such answers would help Congress understand who would be guiding the oversight of this massive bailout since Paulson's term expires with Bush's on Jan. 20, Casey said. Several conservative Republicans echoed the sentiment.

Preparations are under way at the Treasury for Paulson's departure. In an interview this month, Paulson had made it clear that he planned to hang up his hat in January.

His decision to leave — some financial market leaders are calling for him to stay on longer — adds an element of uncertainty as lawmakers ponder whether to approve the administration's plan. They say they cannot be sure who will wield these new powers.