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Road Map: Reid in Lonely Battle to Finish Reform

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) may have quipped last week that he has “no choice” but to finish a financial regulatory reform bill this week, but Republicans and many of his own Democrats are apt to disagree.

Though Reid is expected to keep up the pressure to wrap up work this week, even senior Democrats said it may be a heavy lift with all the Senators who want to say they own a piece of the popular anti-Wall Street measure.

Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Monday that it could be “tough” to finish the bill this week, considering there were no votes on Monday and Reid has already promised Members that they would not be voting on Friday.

“We have only three days of voting,” Durbin said. “So we’ve got a lot to accomplish. I just hope that Sen. Reid keeps us in late if that’s necessary to get through the amendments.”

Durbin added that he is having a difficult time persuading Democrats to agree to vote to close down debate, or invoke cloture, given there are more than 50 Democrats with amendments filed.

“If there’s any chance of cloture, we need the vast majority of Democrats supportive of it,” Durbin said. Noting the number of amendments on his side of the aisle, he added, “That doesn’t make the whip’s job easier to argue for cloture when people have important amendments pending. … I certainly would argue for longer sessions. I don’t think we can get into a 9-to-5 schedule and finish the pending amendments on both sides.”

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who just Monday unveiled his own amendment with Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) to bar banks from making risky bets with their profits, cast some doubt on whether the Senate would be able to finish this week.

“I know Sen. Reid wants to get it off the floor this week,” Levin said.

Asked whether that was possible, Levin demurred, “He’s pulled some miracles here. I never underestimate my leader.”

Republicans, too, were dubious about finishing this week.

“We’d be OK ending debate if this were a bill that did more good than harm,” one senior Senate GOP aide said. “Right now, it’s a bill that does lots of harm and only a little good. Much of the ‘good’ was added to the bill after cloture was defeated three times, so we hope it doesn’t come to that in order to improve the product. A robust amendment process with a focus on improving the bill rather than party-line rejection and side-by-side cover votes would be a good way to finish this up. The priority is to get it right, not meet an arbitrary deadline.”

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) last week said the bill could not be completed in two weeks. While the end of this week would give the measure two and a half weeks of floor time, the Senate didn’t actually start voting on amendments until the debate was in its fourth day because Republicans did not want to do so until a compromise amendment between Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and ranking member Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) was introduced.

One senior Senate Democratic aide sidestepped the question of whether Democratic Senators would be a problem in bringing debate to a close and complained that Republicans tried to block the bill from coming to the floor three times before allowing debate to commence, and then refused to allow amendment votes for four days.

“Republican stalling tactics have prevented us from making more progress on the bill,” the aide said.

Of the 200 amendments that had been filed to the bill Monday afternoon, only 14 have been dispensed with. But votes are expected today on a controversial amendment to require a Government Accountability Office audit of the Federal Reserve and possibly on a Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) amendment dealing with mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Democratic aides, however, cautioned that the real decision on when to try to finish debate on the bill would come when a handful of centrist Republicans say they are ready. After all, even if Reid has all 59 Democrats on board, he would still need some GOP help to get the 60 votes needed to beat back a near-certain filibuster attempt by more conservative Republicans.

And some of those potential swing votes are still waiting for their day on the floor. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), for example, is still waiting for resolution on two amendments. She had another two proposals adopted by voice vote last week.

Plus, as Durbin points out, there are still several big issues Senators must duke out on the floor.

The bill’s ban on banks selling derivatives is expected to be a major flash point, given that many Republicans, the Obama administration and several key Democratic Senators have expressed a desire to change the strict language crafted by Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Chairman Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.).

However, Democrats are leery of gutting Lincoln’s proposal right before the May 18 Arkansas primary. Lincoln, one of the most endangered Senate Democrats up for re-election this year, faces a stiff challenge from her left flank by Democratic Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. If Halter wins, it would give Republicans an even better shot at taking over the seat in the general election.

But, as Durbin noted, banks are also pushing back hard against Lincoln’s proposal.

“The Wall Street banks are spending a large fortune — not a small fortune — to try to undo Blanche Lincoln’s prohibition of derivatives trading by banks. So I expect that amendment to come up,” he said.

Jessica Brady contributed to this report.

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