Major banking bill faces final vote this week

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WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama on Tuesday secured the 60 votes he needs in the Senate to pass a sweeping overhaul of financial regulations, all but ensuring that he soon will sign into law one of the top initiatives of his presidency.

With the votes in hand to overcome Republican delaying tactics, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Tuesday took steps to end debate on the bill Thursday, setting the stage for final passage perhaps later in the day. The House already has passed the bill.

"This reform is good for families, it is good for businesses, it's good for the entire economy," Obama said as he prodded the Senate to act quickly.

Passage would represent a signature achievement for the president just four months after he signed massive health care legislation into law. The final vote comes amid lingering public resentment of Wall Street, but the legislation's symbolic and political impact is likely to be diminished by anxiety across the country over jobs and the economy.

Reid as much as acknowledged that political reality Tuesday, blaming "greed on Wall Street" for the country's economic troubles.

"It triggered the recession," he said. "It's what suffocated the job market and robbed trillions of dollars of people's savings - trillions."

Support for the bill jelled Tuesday after conservative Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska announced he would vote for the bill after raising concerns the previous day.

Obama noted that the bill is getting backing from Republican Sens. Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both of Maine. Snowe and Brown announced their support on Monday.

"Three Republican senators have put politics and partisanship aside to support this reform, and I'm grateful for their decision," Obama said as he announced his nomination of Jacob Lew to be the new director of the White House budget office.

The 2,300-page bill aims to address regulatory weaknesses blamed for the 2008 financial crisis that fueled the worst recession since the 1930s.

It gives regulators broad authority to rein in banks, limit risk-taking by financial firms and supervise previously unregulated trading. It also makes it easier to liquidate large, financially interconnected institutions, and it creates a new consumer protection bureau to guard against lending abuses.

While Democrats are ready to cast the GOP as an ally of Wall Street, Republicans have portrayed the bill as government overreach that would make lending more expensive, increase costs for consumers and hurt U.S. businesses. Republicans repeatedly and fruitlessly tried to expand the bill to include changes to government-controlled mortgage finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

"The vast majority of our members felt that it was not a step in the right direction, that it perpetuated too-big-to-fail, that it was supported by Goldman Sachs and opposed by our community banks," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said.

A trade association representing community bankers, however, circulated a memo Tuesday saying some criticism that the bill would harm small banks "is so extreme it practically implies the end of life as we know it."

The commentary from top Independent Community Bankers Association officials Jim MacPhee, Mike Menzies and Sal Marranca argues that the bill contains important exemptions for smaller institutions.

"Some of those provisions will directly benefit community banks' bottom lines. Others are designed to buffer community banks from the actions lawmakers were intent on taking to rein in the megabanks and nonbank financial firms," they wrote to association members.

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., who helped write much of the bill with House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, said the Senate had arrived at a "historic moment," and urged senators to "set up a regulatory structure that makes it possible for us to address future economic crises, as certain as they will occur."

The House approved the bill last month, with just three Republicans voting in favor. But opposition to the bill from Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, and the death of Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., created new uncertainty for the bill in the Senate.

After Collins, Snowe and Brown decided to break with their party and support the bill, passage seemed assured. Then Nelson, who voted for a Senate version of the bill, surprised Democratic leaders Monday by voicing his concerns.

A day later, Nelson was back on board after receiving assurances that financing of the consumer protection bureau would not be open-ended and that the head of the bureau would be accountable to Congress. That means the three Republican supporters, 55 Democrats, and two independents now add up to the precise number of votes needed to beat back potentially fatal procedural votes.

"It is in America's best interests that risks to our financial system are identified and addressed before they threaten our nation's financial stability again," Nelson said in a statement.

The three Republicans in the Senate won crucial concessions to secure their votes. Collins insisted on tougher rules on the assets that banks keep in their reserves to guard against losses. Snowe helped insert a provision that gives small businesses a greater say in any rules written by the consumer protection bureau. And Brown persuaded lawmakers to ease restrictions on banks investing in hedge funds and private equity - a step designed to help Massachusetts-based institutions.


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