Chairman Dodd’s Last Hurrah

Senator Eyes Legacy in Banking Reform Talks

Posted April 16, 2010 at 5:17pm

Speaking at the Connecticut Democratic Party’s annual Jefferson Jackson Bailey Dinner last week, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) compared his one-time boss and now colleague, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), to the Nutmeg State’s championship basketball team.

“You know, in a lot of ways, Chris Dodd reminds me of the UConn women’s basketball team,” Warner, who grew up in Connecticut and worked as Dodd’s driver while he was a college student, told the crowd. “An incredible success story, despite occasional turbulence and adversity.”

The comparison is fitting as Dodd carries on the delicate balancing act of passing sweeping financial regulatory reform that will likely be the last major legislative accomplishment in his 30-year Senate career. With the bill moving to the floor as soon as this week, the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs chairman is tasked with wooing Republicans, holding together Democrats and, above all, ensuring the legislation will adequately prevent the kind of financial meltdown that rocked Wall Street in 2008.

Dodd had good practice for this difficult task last year, when he filled in for then-ailing Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) as the leading voice from the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on health care reform. He even played with the idea of taking over the committee after Kennedy died last August, but he decided to stay atop the Banking panel in order to lead the effort on financial regulatory reform with the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.).

While long viewed as an ally of the banking and insurance industries — two mainstays of the Connecticut economy — Dodd has increasingly taken an aggressive pro-consumer approach to the financial services sector. He has pushed to create a consumer protection agency — a notion widely opposed by Republicans but that could appear in the final measure — and stepped up his criticism of Republicans in recent days as some Members try to thwart the measure and avoid allowing Democrats a legislative and political win.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who called Dodd “one of the most respected members of our caucus,” said the Connecticut Senator “has had immense patience working with Republicans to pass legislation that is bipartisan and is strong enough to stand up for the American people.”

Dodd lamented the political disharmony in a fiery floor speech late last week.

“In my 30 years here, what a denial of everything I’ve stood for and worked on here in countless pieces of legislation for these decades, to have Members of this body who have spent hours with me crafting the bailout … to [then] vote against even allowing this bill to be debated,” Dodd said.

Dodd introduced a draft in November that had only Democratic support and continued working with Shelby to try to write a bipartisan bill that he hoped would eventually pass the Senate by a comfortable margin.

He formed small bipartisan working groups to hammer out specific pieces of the legislation and intensified his talks with Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) in February when negotiations with Shelby reached a stalemate. By March, Dodd was anxious to move forward but was unable to win a single Republican vote when his regulatory reform bill was marked up in committee.

Dodd and Shelby were able to work out a deal on credit card reform last year in a classic performance of Senate legislating based on relationships as much as substance. In the bill that will be the capstone of his career, Dodd hopes to perform the same feat again, and onlookers are curious to see whether Republicans will go for it.

Even as the rhetoric heats up, Republicans have mostly directed their criticism at the White House rather than Dodd, who models his legislating in the Kennedy mold of working across the aisle during the day and sharing drinks with colleagues of both parties at night.

“Sen. Shelby has worked on these issues with Sen. Dodd for decades and has a great deal of respect for him,” Shelby spokesman Jonathan Graffeo said. “It is Sen. Shelby’s hope that they will continue to work together to produce a meaningful bipartisan financial reform bill soon.”

Dodd will retire at the end of this year after serving five terms in the Senate and, before that, three terms in the House. He will turn 66 next month and chose to retire in part because his political standing has eroded at home.

But Dodd has clearly been thinking about his legacy lately, and as the partisan messaging wars threaten to rob him of the bipartisan accomplishment that he has sought for months, Dodd’s supporters hope to see the kind of second-half comeback that recently gave the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team a championship title.

“The Huskies were down 20 to 12 at the half — in many ways, they did not look like a national championship team at all,” Warner told the dinner crowd that had also gathered to honor Dodd. “Yet you knew, you just knew, that the UConn Huskies would rise to the challenge and finish strong. And they did.”