Wall Street reform: Washington's next battle

By Jennifer Liberto, senior writer


WASHINGTON (CNNMoney.com) -- With the health care fight and two weeks at home behind it, Congress is taking on proposals to reform Wall Street and prevent future financial collapses.

Nothing has really changed since the Senate Banking panel passed an overhaul measure along party lines in late March - except that the rhetoric on both sides has sharpened.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., came out swinging Tuesday and Wednesday, slamming Banking Committee chairman Christopher Dodd's bill as a "perpetual taxpayer bailout of Wall Street banks."

Dodd, D-Conn., defended the bill on Wednesday, saying that nobody likes bailouts and "under our proposal they'll never happen again." Dodd also denied accusations he didn't work with Republicans on the bill and called their accusations "poppycock."

Earlier in the week, the Democratic National Committee started airing an ad on cable networks, including CNN, criticizing Republicans for not joining the Obama administration's push for regulatory overhaul.

And in the latest display of urgency, President Obama - fresh off two days of meeting with world leaders on nuclear issues - met Wednesday with congressional leaders at the White House to talk about the issue.

"All of us recognize that we cannot have a circumstance in which a meltdown in the financial sector once again puts the entire economy in peril," Obama said. "I'm absolutely confident that we can work out an effective bipartisan package that assures that we never have too big to fail again.''

So what's the hurry?

"The difference is that we are just a week or two away from the Senate taking up financial reform legislation," said Jaret Seiberg, an analyst with Washington Research Group Concept Capital. "That means these threats are more real because there is a vehicle to enact them."

Veterans of the process say the Senate needs to pass a bill sometime in the next month and a half, before Congress breaks for Memorial Day and lawmakers get caught up in elections. The House passed a regulatory overhaul in December.

For the past six months, key senators have been talking about various versions of a Wall Street overhaul bill. In many areas, they generally agree, such as when it comes to pushing banks and financial firms to strengthen capital cushions, and creating a new process for taking down giant failing companies and preventing future Wall Street bailouts.

What the disagreement is: However, the same hang-ups that have hampered progress for the past year remain, especially when it comes to creating a new consumer financial protection regulator and keeping an eye on the kind of complex financial dealings that led to the crisis.

The Senate bill would create a new consumer regulator that would be housed inside the Federal Reserve but would be considered independent. The regulator's mission would be to ensure consumers get a fair shake with mortgages and credit cards.

Republicans don't like the extensive rule-making and enforcement powers that the consumer regulator would get, saying they would threaten bank safety and soundness.

Fed chairman Ben Bernanke weighed in on Wednesday. During a congressional hearing, when asked whether a consumer financial regulator should be able to act independent of existing regulators, Bernanke said that unchecked independence could adversely impact credit availability for consumers.

Another big area of disagreement is over how to prevent future collapses, such as that of American Insurance Group (AIG, Fortune 500). The Senate wants to force trading on complex financial products, known as derivatives, to be done on clearinghouses in order to make such trades more open to scrutiny.

However, Republicans and Democrats disagree over which derivatives, such as those traded by big agricultural and airline companies to mitigate risk, could continue unregulated.

What's next: Dodd, D-Conn., and the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking panel, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., continue to negotiate differences in the bill.

Dodd and top Democrats have said they'd like the full Senate to begin debating regulatory overhaul in coming weeks.

Obama is expected to ask congressional leaders for bipartisan support on a Wall Street reform bill. Getting it, especially with the midterm elections less than seven months away, could be problematic. To top of page

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