Wall Street Bill Offers Chance for Some Chits

Incumbents Looking to Amendments for Points

Posted May 4, 2010 at 6:45pm

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is in campaign mode, so when it came time for Senators to offer amendments to the financial regulatory reform bill, she made sure she was first in the queue.

“I wrote it and I called [Sen.] Chris [Dodd] and [Majority Leader] Harry [Reid] and I said, ‘You know, the other side keeps saying this bill is for bailouts; it’s not. And I think you need to just say, fine, if this is your problem, then let’s correct it,'” Boxer explained of her provision to ban taxpayer-funded bailouts. “Everyone said it was a good idea, and that’s how it got to be first.”

For Boxer, whose legislative profile is typically dominated by environmental and transportation issues as the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, it was a major coup to get ahead of her colleagues in the very long amendment line. Boxer is poised to have a real race this fall against the winner of the June 8 GOP primary featuring state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, businesswoman Carly Fiorina and former Rep. Tom Campbell.

Asked whether California voters were responding to her efforts to change the financial overhaul, Boxer said, “This is an issue that resonates with Republicans and Democrats and independents back home, absolutely.”

In high-profile legislative debates, party leaders often dole out amendments for their embattled colleagues to champion on the floor. But in the case of financial reform, the tail appears to be wagging the dog. Democratic Senators, including those who aren’t in a race this cycle, have filed scores of amendments and obliterated the need to assign tasks. Boxer hustled to be first, but others also expect to see their day.

“We will work on an amendment strategy that allows Senators to offer amendments that are important to their constituents,” one senior Democratic leadership aide said. “That includes Senators who are up for re-election this year.”

[IMGCAP(1)]Among them are appointed Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who are hoping to hold on to their seats on Nov. 2 and are looking to push amendments of their own to the financial overhaul. Bennet may have the benefit of not having served in 2008 when the Senate approved controversial bailouts for the financial and auto industries, but he does have to put some meat on his record to try to woo voters. Gillibrand may be looking to use the debate to win over both her one-time House constituents upstate and New York City, home to many of the nation’s largest financial institutions.

Then there’s Reid. The Nevada Democrat is the GOP’s biggest Senate target this cycle and is facing tough odds in his race for a fifth term.

Reid may not offer any amendments to the financial reform measure, but he scored a major victory last week when he forced Republicans to abandon a three-day filibuster of the bill. Reid has tried to stay on offense ever since, pushing up the timeline to complete the bill and daring Republicans to vote “no.” Also feeling the political wind at their backs, Senate Democrats launched a coordinated campaign at home last weekend to tout the measure through a series of media appearances and field hearings that are expected to continue.

Republicans have tried to score political points of their own. Hoping to injure Democrats when it comes to influencing potential voters, GOP Senators have charged that the bill — sponsored by Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat who chairs the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee — would hurt small businesses.

Republicans will also offer amendments and plan to pursue a strategy that puts Democrats on the hook for taking care of Wall Street.

“Republicans will offer substantive amendments to improve this bill and stop it from overregulating Main Street,” a Republican leadership aide said. “If Democrats do the same — instead of just trying to score political points — they will get Republican support.”

Bipartisan amendments could be helpful for moderate Senators such as Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Chairman Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), who is being challenged from both the left and the right. Lincoln first has to face Democratic voters in her state’s May 18 primary and is touting a left-leaning derivatives bill that she shepherded through her panel to help push her over that hump. Democratic leaders initially rebuffed the measure but later made allowances to ensure Lincoln had a win that she could tout back home.

“I think it resonates with people, and yes, I certainly feel like I produced a very strong bill and one that really gets at the issue and the problem that we’ve faced,” Lincoln said, even though fate of the language that she authored remains unclear.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) said many vulnerable Democrats “feel very passionately” about financial reform and that “there’s a feeling that they should be highlighted in the effort.”

Menendez added that the issue provides Democratic candidates with an opportunity to create a contrast with Republicans and that the floor debate is “a great opportunity” for them.

Lincoln said she thinks Americans will look favorably on Senators who support the financial overhaul.

“For regular Americans, they want a strong bill,” Lincoln said. “They want to know we’re not going to put the Treasury or the taxpayers at risk … and I think they see what we’re doing as positive.”

Emily Pierce contributed to this report.