Wall Street reform: Senate showdown set

By Jennifer Liberto, senior writer


WASHINGTON (CNNMoney.com) -- With SEC charges against Goldman Sachs in the background, Democrats plan to start debating the Wall Street reform bill in the Senate this week, even as Republicans continue to say they oppose the bill.

"Our bill ends too big to fail, bailouts end forever," said Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., in a Monday press conference held to drum up momentum for the bill. "Our bill holds Wall Street accountable, mandates real transparency, so that large banks can't gamble our money in the shadows of the financial system."

But, in a letter to Senate Democrats on Friday, 41 Senate Republicans said they "are united" in opposing the current bill that passed the Banking Committee last month, according to a letter penned by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

The letter signals that Republicans have enough votes to delay the bill, although it stopped short of vowing to block the bill from being debated.

Wall Street reform got additional impetus Friday when the Securities and Exchange Commission charged Goldman with defrauding investors on mortgage-backed securities. (The tale of Goldman's fraud charges)

Dodd again met with Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., on Monday to negotiate differences on the bill. Both lawmakers said they made progress without revealing specifics.

"We're closer than we've ever been," said Shelby who suggested that if talks continued in "good faith" that Democrats may delay debating the bill. At this point it's unclear when Senate leadership plans to start debating the bill, but Dodd had previously suggested it could be later this week.

"We're getting there," said Dodd, who emphasized the need to move forward with the bill. "I find that people get more ready when they realize you're going to."

President Obama has also sharpened his rhetoric in pushing for the bill and plans to make a speech about the need for financial reform Thursday in New York.

"The consequences of this failure of responsibility -- from Wall Street to Washington -- are all around us: 8 million jobs lost, trillions in savings erased, countless dreams diminished or denied, " Obama said in his weekly radio address. "I believe we have to do everything we can to ensure that no crisis like this ever happens again."

Obama criticized McConnell on Saturday, accusing him of coming out against reform a day after meeting with a group of Wall Street executives.

But McConnell said Sunday that he isn't against such reforms, generally.

"I don't know anybody in the Senate who thinks we ought not to pass a bill," McConnell said on CNN's State of the Union with Candy Crowley. "We want to make sure that we don't set up a system whereby we empower the government to continue to do what it has been doing -- running banks, insurance companies, car companies."

The proposed Wall Street overhaul would create a new unwinding process for failing financial firms and require banks to beef up capital cushions, while creating a new consumer financial regulator to watch over mortgages and credit cards.

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, and the two chambers would have to reconcile differences before Obama could sign a measure into law.

What the disagreements are: However, many of the same hang-ups that have hampered progress for the past year remain, especially when it comes to creating a wind-down process for failed institutions, a new consumer financial protection regulator, and keeping an eye on the kind of complex financial dealings -- such as the ones at the center of the Goldman case -- that led to the crisis.

The Senate bill would create a $50 billion pot of money, funded by banks, that would go toward taking down failing Wall Street banks. Many Republicans don't want a pot of money dedicated for the sole purpose of government intervention, saying it would give an implicit guarantee of government support. They call the fund a bailout, even though it's not paid for by taxpayers.

Also in the Senate bill is 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.

Another big area of disagreement is over ways 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 control swings in prices, could continue unregulated.

Despite the loud disagreements, Democrats are signaling that they intend to move forward with the bill, even as negotiations continue. "We've negotiated enough," Majority Leader Harry Reid said Thursday.

Democrats are working hard to nail down one Republican to vote with them. Secretary Tim Geithner met with several Republican lawmakers trying to woo votes, including Sens. Shelby, Richard Lugar, R-Ind. and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. On Monday, Geithner was scheduled to meet with Sen. Susan Colins, R-Maine.

But the difficulty facing the bill was brought into focus last Thursday, when Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., added his voice to those saying the bill's path had taken a "partisan turn." Corker worked extensively with Democrats on parts of the current bill, including the winding down process and the consumer financial protection regulator.

"The fact is, the bill has taken a partisan turn. There are some bipartisan solutions in this bill, I grant that. But there's still work to be done," Corker said. "Let's finish that work before it gets to the floor. Let's just finish what we started."

- CNN's Ted Barrett and Jessica Yellin contributed to this report. To top of page

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