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Road Map: Dodd Eager for Credit Card Victory

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) could use some good press.

[IMGCAP(1)]The Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs chairman and embattled 2010 incumbent has pinned his re-election hopes on championing consumer protections, taking on the wildly unpopular credit card industry, and hitching his star to popular President Barack Obama, who has been pushing a crackdown on abusive credit card practices.

After all, Dodd needs to change the conversation from questions about his home mortgage deal with Countrywide Financial, concerns about how he came to own a vacation home in Ireland and constituent anger over his authorship of a legislative loophole that protected multimillion-dollar bonuses for American International Group executives. Then, just this weekend, the Hartford Courant published a stinging article questioning his wife’s compensation on various corporate boards.

While Dodd has already benefited from editorials praising his bill, he may have to wait a little while longer to get his star turn on the Senate floor as the author of a measure restricting credit card fees and interest rate increases. Though Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) planned to bring the bill up this week, as of press time negotiations with Banking ranking member Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) were taking longer than expected. As a result, Reid was considering moving to a military procurement bill first — pushing off the much-ballyhooed credit card bill until next week at the earliest.

But both Democratic and Republican aides said victory for Dodd — and for Democrats in general — is in the air. Most said the Dodd-Shelby talks were more likely than not to result in a deal that brings enough Republicans on board to protect the measure from filibuster.

One Democrat familiar with the credit card companies’ thinking said, “The industry is bracing for defeat.—

Indeed, Republican rhetoric on the bill has been muted, with even conservatives such as Sen. John Thune (S.D.) saying they merely want to amend the bill, not kill it.

“It seems a given that we’re going to get a deal. It’s just a question of when,— one senior Senate Democratic aide said. The aide added that Republicans appear to recognize that the measure is “not something they’re willing to walk the plank on.—

Indeed, the bill presents a potential trap for Republicans and appears to be a win-win for Democrats. The presidential seal of approval provides Senate Democrats with the bully pulpit, which Obama used to great effect in late April when he hosted the credit card companies at the White House.

And if it passes, the majority can use the populist measure as a “what we’ve done for you lately— campaign theme. If Republicans block it, Democrats have a sharp weapon against the minority.

“At a time of economic downturn, they’ll be tied even more fiercely to the banks that got us into this mess,— a Senate Democratic leadership aide said. Still, the aide added that the focus right now is on crafting a deal with Shelby, because “We want the win.—

The Dodd bill would prevent credit card companies from arbitrarily raising interest rates, charging multiple fees during one billing cycle, using a customer’s delinquency on other bills as a reason to raise interest rates and charging interest on transaction fees, among other things.

Shelby has been arguing to make the measure more like a bill the House passed last week. It included some exceptions to the rules on raising interest rates. For example, the House bill would allow rate increases if a customer payment is more than 30 days late.

“The closer it gets to the House bill, the more support it will get,— another Senate Democratic aide said. The House bill passed by a surprisingly strong bipartisan vote of 357-70, and it closely tracks regulations the Federal Reserve is planning to put into place starting in 2010.

Republicans said the Federal Reserve’s backing has been key to GOP support for the concept, and one senior Senate Republican aide said the bill has been a product of bipartisan negotiations from the start.

Still, Republicans are obviously hoping that their general support for the bill won’t have the added effect of undermining their case against one of the most — if not the most — vulnerable Democrats of the 2010 election cycle.

“Chris Dodd has been asleep at the switch,— the senior Senate GOP aide said. “The things he needs to answer for in Connecticut go far beyond what he’s doing in this session.—

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