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Reform Dominates Panel’s Agenda

The Senate started playing catch-up with the House last week when Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) unveiled his version of a bill that would rewrite the country’s financial rules to avoid a repeat of last year’s economic meltdown.

The legislation is certain to be the vast majority of the committee’s work product for the foreseeable future. The committee has also been working on a handful of other bills, including a measure to prevent banks from charging excessive overdraft fees without customers’ consent and a bill that would impose economic sanctions on Iran.

But regulatory reform remains the top priority, and with opposition to the proposal from the banking industry, some regulators and committee Republicans, significant hurdles remain.

Dodd said markup would begin Thursday for opening statements only, but he does not have a timeline for final passage. He said he expects members of both parties to sign on to the final piece of legislation, despite the fact that the panel’s ranking member, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), walked away from the drafting process last month.

“I had hoped today that we’d be standing here with a consensus bill, but I understand that isn’t always possible when you want it to happen,” Dodd said. “But I’m confident and optimistic that will happen.”

Dodd has a long way to go if he wants to win support from the Republican leader. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) came out swinging last week, sharply criticizing a proposal he said was not supported by any Republican.

“I don’t think the public is clamoring for us to pass yet another thousand-page bill, and I’m not sure where they’d find the time to do this on the Senate floor, since it’s obvious health care’s going to be the dominant issue for the coming months,” McConnell said.

But some GOP committee members, including Shelby and Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.), left open the possibility for negotiation despite their concerns.

“We have differences of philosophy and differences of opinion,” Shelby said. “At the end of the day, maybe we can work together and build a real substantive, bipartisan bill, but [Dodd’s plan] is not it.”

Among the non-starters for Republicans is a provision that would establish a new agency to oversee common consumer financial products, such as mortgages and credit cards.

A cornerstone of the administration’s plan, the proposal was a difficult sell in the House Financial Services Committee, where moderate Democrats pushed through a handful of amendments limiting the agency’s authority.

The provision is likely to have a much tougher time making it out of the Banking Committee intact. Although the panel’s more liberal members have championed the creation of the agency, several Democrats have raised concerns.

“There’s still questions I have about it,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said.

Republicans have also insisted the measure address the future of mortgage finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which the government took over following the housing market collapse. Dodd has said that although major changes at the government-sponsored enterprises were needed, he wanted to keep that issue separate.

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