Senate GOP proposes alternate consumer plan
WASHINGTON (AP) – Republicans offered a weaker alternative to consumer protection measures that are central to President Barack Obama’s Wall Street regulation plan, opening a new front Wednesday in the Senate debate over how to rein in financial institutions.
The Senate pivoted straight into that confrontation after reaching a compromise on how to dismantle large failing firms. In that agreement, senators voted 93-5 to eliminate a contentious $50 billion fund that would have been used to pay for a firm’s liquidation.
The Senate also voted 96-1 to protect taxpayers from losses. But the government would still have to put money up front to cover the costs of a firm’s orderly dissolution. That money would be recovered through the sale of the failed firm’s assets and by forcing shareholders and creditors to take substantial losses.
“While we have had our differences in other areas, we have always shared a commitment to ensuring that taxpayers will never again be forced to bail out giant Wall Street firms that fail,” Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd, D-Conn., said of his agreement with the committee’s top Republican, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said the bipartisan vote “demonstrates the growing momentum for passing comprehensive financial reform.”
But the Dodd and Shelby agreement, and the quick succession of votes that followed, belied the remaining partisan disputes. And no disagreement displayed partisan differences more than the divide over consumer protections. The Republican plan would limit the enforcement power of a proposed consumer protection bureau and make its rules subject to approval by a top banking regulator.
The White House was quick to object. Spokeswoman Amy Brundage called the Republican proposal “nothing more than a lobbyist-influenced defense of the status quo and an attempt to water down the consumer protections” in the bill.
“We will not accept this,” Brundage said.
The GOP plan would create a division of consumer protection within the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to oversee nonbank mortgage companies and write consumer regulations. The FDIC would have to sign off on those rules.
In contrast, the Democratic plan backed by the Obama administration would create an independent bureau within the Federal Reserve to police lending and other customer financial service transactions. It would have a freer hand to enforce its regulations.
In another departure from the pending Democratic bill, the Republican plan would continue the practice of having federal laws override state laws. Under the Democratic proposal, states would be allowed to write and enforce tougher laws, a provision opposed by the financial industry.
Creating a new consumer financial protection entity within the government is a central piece of the Obama administration’s regulatory package. Obama has said he would veto legislation that contained consumer protections he deems too weak.
Republicans have complained that the Senate Democratic proposal, which is not as ambitious as the administration’s, would be too sweeping and create a patchwork of state rules.
The consumer measure is one of an array of hurdles facing the legislation. Despite Wednesday’s votes, the endgame for the bill was far from clear.
“The Republicans have stopped us from doing anything on this bill,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said earlier Wednesday, before the Senate’s votes. Reid has said he wants to complete the bill by the end of next week.
Shelby, who offered the Republicans’ consumer protection alternative, said the legislation is complex and senators should be given time to debate it. “We’re not here to delay in any way this bill,” he said.
The parties agreed to drop a provision in the bill that would require banks to gather data about their customers and track the information by census tract. The provision was designed to help enforce consumer protections, but critics have said the provision was too onerous on financial firms.
Disputes over consumer protections, Federal Reserve oversight and regulation of complex securities are, for the moment, beyond compromise. Democrats and Republicans were preparing to fight those issues on the Senate floor.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, obtained bipartisan support for an amendment that would require an extensive audit of the Federal Reserve. Administration and Fed officials were opposing the measure, saying it would interfere with the Fed’s independence in setting monetary policy.
Several Democrats also aimed to make the bill tougher on banks, calling for limits on bank size or restrictions on their ability to trade on their own accounts.
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