Bailout nation: How much is this going to cost us again?

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It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon here in New York and downtown the Who’s Who of high finance are racing to come up with a plan to deal with Lehman Brothers. Here’s the latest (as of about noon), from the New York Times:

The fate of Lehman Brothers, the beleaguered investment bank, hung in the balance on Sunday as Federal Reserve officials and the leaders of major financial institutions continued to gather in emergency meetings trying to complete a plan to rescue the stricken bank.

The talks took on even greater urgency on Sunday as government officials push for a deal to be completed before the markets open.

Several possible plans emerged from the talks, held at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and led by Timothy R. Geithner, the president of the New York Fed, and Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr.

The leading proposal would divide Lehman into two entities, a “good bank” and a “bad bank.” Barclays of Britain would buy the parts of Lehman that have been performing well, while a group of 10 to 15 Wall Street companies would agree to absorb losses from the bank’s troubled assets, according to two people briefed on the proposal. Taxpayer money would not be included in such a deal, they said.

Under that plan, the Wall Street banks would agree to provide up to $30 billion of support to absorb the losses of the bad bank. That is roughly the same amount of money that the government agreed to commit to support JPMorgan Chase’s emergency takeover of Bear Stearns in March.

The assets of the bad bank would be sold over time as the market for mortgage-related assets recovers and buyers emerge. If the assets appreciate, the bank consortium would share in the profits. But they would also be responsible for any losses.

None of the banks involved, however, have committed to any rescue plan, and talks could still fall apart.

The Feds seem pretty serious this time around about not using government (i.e., your) money, like they did to back up JPMorgan’s swallowing of Bear Stearns. Things, of course, are different now, with investment banks being allowed to borrow directly from the Fed any old day of the week.

Just keep in mind that in these unprecedented–I think I’m safe using that word–times, things like how much taxpayers wind up footing the bill is as fluid as anything else.

As I mentioned last week, Congress was quite proud of funding big parts of its July housing legislation with money from a new affordable housing trust fund, to be drawn from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Once the government took over Fan and Fred (last weekend’s financial crisis, lest you forget), the Congressional Budget Office, came out saying that the mortgage-buying giants should be directly incorporated into the federal budget. In other words, ultimately funded by taxpayers.

On Friday, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget said, actually, let’s not incorporate Fan and Fred into the budget after all. I guess he has a point, since off-balance sheet transactions have always worked so well in the past.

Anyway, I’m not saying that the folks downtown shouldn’t do whatever they need to keep the financial markets from spazzing, even if that includes taxpayer money. Just that I wouldn’t consider anyone, including us, as off the hook yet.