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Delaying debit card fee cap gains momentum

By Jennifer Liberto, senior writer

WASHINGTON (CNNMoney) -- A legislative effort to delay and study a new law capping the swipe fees that retailers pay is picking up steam in Congress.

Late Tuesday, Sen. Jon Tester filed an amendment to a small business bill to pause a new law that helps retailers, small and large, by capping fees paid to the largest banks and credit card companies to process debit cards.

The Federal Reserve is talking about capping so-called "interchange" or "swipe" fees at 12 cents per transaction, down from an average of 44 cents now. Such a move could cost the banking industry more than $13 billion, according to CardHub.com.

Tester, a Montana Democrat, is seeking a one-year reprieve from new swipe fee caps, as well as a study. He has picked up two Democratic co-sponsors who last year voted the other way, supporting the crackdown on swipe fees: Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida.

Tester will need 60 votes in the Senate to pass the delay, and he hasn't secured that yet, as several key lawmakers are refusing to commit to either side, several congressional aides and lobbyists tell CNNMoney.

However, a recent move by the Federal Reserve could add fuel to those seeking a delay. Chairman Ben Bernanke wrote Congress on Tuesday saying that the Fed had been inundated with correspondence about implementing new caps and won't be able to release proposed new rules by its April 21 deadline.

Bernanke did say the Fed can enact the new rules by a July 21 deadline.

"The issues raised by the comments are complex and difficult, and are significant to the payment system, its providers and its users," Bernanke wrote in a letter that's already being cited by those seeking to delay the swipe fee caps.

If successful, the delay effort would be a big defeat for the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, Richard Durbin of Illinois, who has been fighting to cap these swipe fees for years. Durbin opposes the proposed delay and the study.

"Chairman Bernanke reiterated to me today that the Federal Reserve is working diligently to finalize its rules in a timely fashion," Durbin said in a statement released Tuesday. "On that day, small businesses will finally see relief from years of high fees that are unilaterally set by Visa and MasterCard on behalf of the nation's biggest banks, and consumers will begin to benefit from increased competition, discounts and lower prices."

Big banks are gaining ground by teaming up with smaller banks and credit unions, even though the smaller players are specifically exempt under the bill, to fight the measure.

The smaller banks and credit unions have played a pivotal role in stopping previous efforts to curb swipe fees. They say that competitive market forces will require them to lower their own debit card swipe fees and they can't afford that.

Also, they say that regulators can't stop retailers from turning away cards from smaller banks and credit unions who are allowed to charge higher swipe fees, a possibility Bernanke acknowledged in congressional testimony last month.

On the other side are small businesses and retailers who say the debit card swipe fees are crippling their ability to grow their companies and create jobs.

"I hope our senators see this amendment for what it is: A move to kill reform. . .essentially a small business killer," said Dennis Lane, 7-Eleven franchise owner and spokesman for the retailer group fighting the delay. To top of page

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