Beleaguered Democrats are eyeing the financial reform conference committee, set to get under way today, as a golden opportunity to tar Republicans as tools of Wall Street — and they want the biggest audience as they can get.
Real conference committees, where disputes between the two chambers are debated and voted on section by section, are rare beasts indeed in Congress of late; open, televised conferences that last a week or more are all but extinct.
But in a sign of Democrats’ confidence that they have the public and the votes solidly on their side this time around, Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (Mass.) sent a letter Wednesday urging C-SPAN to provide gavel-to-gavel coverage of what he said will be a historic event.
“The open conference and televising it is our further attempt to show the American people we are responding directly to the financial crisis in 2008, that we learned from the mistakes of others and that we are not going to put the taxpayers on the hook for the reckless and irresponsible actions by Wall Street,” Frank spokesman Steven Adamske said.
Democratic leaders have been harping for months on the House GOP’s unanimous opposition to the bill when it initially passed the House, as well as news stories showing Republican leaders meeting with lobbyists and trying to kill the legislation. That will only ramp up in the coming weeks.
“Expect an intense PR campaign,” a House Democratic leadership aide said.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the process Democrats have outlined will produce a strong bill. “Special interests will have a tougher time trying to get what they want behind closed doors,” Van Hollen said. “I think it will become very clear that Republicans once again are trying to protect the big banks and the special interests.”
Financial reform has been a far easier lift for most Democrats than health care, economic stimulus or energy bills. They have been heartened by polls showing strong support for regulating Wall Street and by Senate Republicans’ failure to maintain a filibuster on the bill as moderates defected.
Many rank-and-file Democrats would rather be discussing new rules for bankers than their failure to pass a budget or their internal disputes on whether to continue bailing out distressed state and local governments.
House Republicans launched a pre-emptive attack on the bill Wednesday, ripping it for failing to reform the government-backed mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
House Minority Leader John Boehner noted that he had called for an open, bipartisan conference as well, and he said Republicans would ask tough questions and stand up for taxpayers.
“What Americans will see at the outset is a flawed bill with job-killing implications that is riddled with lobbyist-inspired loopholes and special interest carve-outs, while lacking any reform of the government mortgage companies that triggered the economic crisis,” the Ohio Republican said.
Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) tried to bring a Republican reform proposal to the floor as part of his YouCut initiative that he said would slash $30 billion in spending by reforming Fannie and Freddie, but Democrats blocked the move.
Senate Republicans wondered whether Democrats will give them much say over the final product, despite promises of openness.
Banking ranking member Richard Shelby said he was curious whether “we’re deemed relevant in the conference and how open it will be, or if it will just be back-room deals.”
The Alabama Republican, who blasted the bill in May, tempered his remarks after a bipartisan meeting of Senate conferees Wednesday but gave a grim assessment of the minority’s potential impact.
“[We’ll offer] suggestions, I don’t know about changes. We don’t have the votes,” he said.
Sen. Bob Corker, who briefly served as the GOP’s lead negotiator with Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) but ultimately voted against the Senate bill in May, was also doubtful that the conference report would result in a broadly bipartisan product.
The Tennessee Republican told reporters that Republicans want to help produce a bill they can support, but “I think it’s doubtful and I think most people understand that.”
Senate Republicans plan to attack the bill’s new consumer protection bureau, which they contend would hit small businesses with onerous new regulations. But they may defer on other amendments to their House counterparts given that the bill already had weeks of debate and votes on the Senate floor.
Dodd said he welcomed proposals from either side but warned, “I’m not going to let the bill become watered down in the process.”
Democrats, however, face their own disputes on the bill, in particular with the strict derivatives language in the Senate bill authored by Agriculture Chairman Blanche Lincoln, which is expected to be changed in conference.
Dodd tried to undermine the Arkansas Democrat’s language in the Senate in May and said it could be tweaked.
“Look, it’s a strong provision in the bill and I think she’s on the right track,” Dodd said. “I’m certainly willing to listen to ideas that people have on matters that deal with this in some way. Obviously that’s an area they’ll have to talk to Blanche about.”
Tory Newmyer contributed to this report.