Banking bill advances in US Senate, highlights Democratic divide

Major banking reform legislation that sharply divides Democrats advanced Tuesday in the Senate.Many moderate D...

Posted: Mar 6, 2018 1:19 PM
Updated: Mar 6, 2018 1:19 PM

Major banking reform legislation that sharply divides Democrats advanced Tuesday in the Senate.

Many moderate Democrats -- including several up for re-election in red states -- support the proposed changes to Dodd-Frank, a law enacted in 2010, arguing the tough rules ended up hurting smaller banks. But many progressive Democrats strongly oppose easing regulations for the banks, warning doing so could lead to another financial crisis like the one in 2008, which triggered a deep recession.

The Senate approved a procedural motion on a 67-to-32 vote and will move soon to formal debate on the bill, which could start immediately, if there is cooperation and agreement. If not, formal debate could be held up for up to 30 hours. Seventeen senators who caucus with the Democrats joined with all Republicans who were present, an indication that measure can pass the chamber when a final vote takes place, possibly next week.

"The Senate -- with the support of some Democrats -- is set to start debate on a bill to roll back regulations on the same big banks we bailed out a few years ago. If we lose the final vote next week, we'll be paving the way for the next big crash," said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat and a leading liberal who is a vocal critic of changing the law.

Ahead of Tuesday's vote, Warren told reporters she planned to introduce a dozen amendments to the bill to shore up protections for consumers. It's unclear if she will be able to get votes on her proposals.

"I'm going to fight back," Warren said. "The American people have not forgotten. Millions of people lost their jobs. Millions of people lost their savings."

Progressive Democrats also seized on a report by the Congressional Budget Office released Monday evening that showed the bill would increase the federal deficit by $671 million and increase the likelihood a Wall Street mega-bank will fail.

"The independent budget scorekeeper confirmed what we know -- this bank giveaway bill will cost taxpayers," said Sen. Sherrod Brown, the top Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee. "Hard working Americans shouldn't have to pay for favors to Wall Street, foreign mega-banks and their lobbyists."

Warren and Brown both expressed frustration with those moderate Democrats for providing Republicans with the necessary votes to pass the bill.

But unlike Warren, many of the measure's Democratic co-sponsors hail from rural states won by President Donald Trump. They argue they must respond to the distinct political and banking needs in their states, which they say have been hurt by consolidation in the banking industry since Dodd-Frank was enacted.

Their support for the long-sought reform may also demonstrate to their voters, many who voted for Trump, that they can work with the president and not reflexively oppose anything he supports.

"When we passed Dodd-Frank, it was to stop the biggest guys from tanking the economy again," said Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat who supports the bill. "We've seen the regulation bleed down. In Montana, we went from 72 community banks to 47."

Other centrist Democratic backers include Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Claire McCaskill of Missouri.

"After years of bipartisan work to advance regulatory relief for the community banks and credit unions across Indiana, I'm pleased that the full Senate will debate the legislative package I negotiated," Donnelly said in a statement. "This legislation would make it easier for Hoosier families to gain access to mortgages and small businesses to access capital, and it also includes important new consumer protections, such as free credit freezes, in response to the Equifax data breach."

Backers of the plan argue that smaller banks shouldn't have to face the same set of strict rules as behemoth Wall Street banks that could endanger the entire financial system if they go under.

In a pen-and-pad with reporters on Tuesday, four moderate Democrats -- Heitkamp, Tester, Donnelly and Warner -- tried to dispel mischaracterizations of the bill.

"I am not going to let this legislative history be papered with misconceptions of this bill," Heitkamp said.

Other co-sponsors come from purple states, like Tim Kaine and Mark Warner of Virginia, Michael Bennet of Colorado, and Gary Peters of Michigan. The new Democratic senator from Alabama, Doug Jones, is also a supporter.

"I'm very worried about the consolidation of the banking industry in Virginia," said Kaine, who was Hillary Clinton's running mate in 2016 and who describes himself as a "huge" supporter of Dodd-Frank. "But I believe a consequence of it has been to accelerate consolidation of banks."

Brown dismissed questions about the political divisions in his party and blasted his colleagues for supporting a bill that he said would make the banking system less safe.

"I don't have an opinion on how it should play in the midterms," Brown said. "I wonder how it's going to play out in the next 10 years if we start rolling back Wall Street rules. I'm between concerned and alarmed about what my colleagues are doing on weakening bank rules."

Warner acknowledged the division in the Democratic caucus but expressed optimism the party could work through changes to improve the bill.

"We feel very good about getting through this process," Warner told reporters.

The biggest change in the bill would raise the trigger at which banks are considered "too big to fail" to $250 billion in assets to $50 billion in assets. That means more than two dozen banks would be shielded from some of the Federal Reserve's oversight. It would also exempt American operations of big foreign banks, like Deutsche Bank, BNP Paribas and Banco Santander.

Proponents of the Dodd-Frank law have sharply criticized the bill, arguing it would weaken protections aimed at keeping the financial system safe from another crisis.

"The provisions of the bill, particularly when coupled with the clearly expressed deregulatory agenda of the Trump administration and its key financial regulators, will once again put us on the path of exposing American taxpayers, our financial system, and our economy to significant risk," Phil Angelides, a former chairman of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, said in a statement.

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