Senate Moves Closer To Passing Bill To Ease Bank Safeguards


WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate moved closer Tuesday to passing legislation to roll back some of the safeguards Congress put in place to prevent a repeat of the financial crisis. Enough Democrats supported a procedural vote on the bipartisan bill to show it has a good chance of passage in the Republican-majority Senate.

The move to alter some key aspects of the Dodd-Frank law comes ten years after the financial crisis rocked the nation's economy. The bill has overwhelming Republican support and enough Democratic backing that it's expected to gain the 60 votes necessary to clear the Senate. That was reflected in the 67-32 vote Tuesday, with 16 Democrats and one independent voting to move ahead with consideration of the bill.

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Several Democratic lawmakers facing tough re-election races this year have broken ranks with Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

Nonpartisan congressional analysts say the legislation would slightly increase the probability of a big bank failure — prompting a possible taxpayer bailout — or another financial meltdown. The probability of those events is deemed to be small under current law. The new assessment by the Congressional Budget Office estimates the bill would increase federal deficits by $671 million between 2018 and 2027 if it became law.

"This bank giveaway bill will cost taxpayers," Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, the top Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee, said in a statement. "Hardworking Americans shouldn't have to pay for favors to Wall Street, foreign megabanks and their lobbyists."

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Speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday, Brown warned that the easing of stress-testing and inspection requirements for larger banks under the bill would jeopardize "the safety and soundness of the banking system."

But the bill's proponents insist it would bring a needed boost to beleaguered banks outside Wall Street that didn't engage in the reckless practices that fueled the financial crisis.

"This bill recognizes a simple truth: Small community banks and Main Street credit unions are not the same a multitrillion-dollar banks on Wall Street," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor before the vote. Under Dodd-Frank, he said, "Small-scale lenders have been subjected to a litany of new regulatory, compliance and (inspection) demands that were designed with the country's largest banks in mind. Dodd-Frank's enormous regulatory burden has been inefficient and unhelpful for financial institutions of all sizes, but it has hit Main Street lenders especially hard."

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The legislation would increase the threshold at which banks are subject to stricter capital and planning requirements. Lawmakers are intent on easing those rules for midsize and large regional banks, asserting that would boost lending and the economy.

Banks have long complained about the cost of complying with the many requirements of Dodd-Frank. Under the Senate bill, some of the nation's biggest banks would no longer have to undergo an annual stress test conducted by the Federal Reserve. The test assesses whether a bank has enough capital to survive an economic shock and continue lending. Dozens of banks would also be exempted from making plans called "living wills" that spell out how the bank will sell off assets or be liquidated in a way that won't create chaos in the financial system.

The House version of the bill is a "recalibration" of Dodd-Frank to help community banks and credit unions increase their capitalization, the Financial Services Committee chairman said Tuesday. "A community bank that's 0.002 percent the size of J.P. Morgan shouldn't be laboring under a similar set of regulatory burdens," Texas Republican Rep. Jeb Hensarling said.

The Senate legislation increases from $50 billion to $250 billion the threshold at which banks are considered critical to the system. The change would ease regulations on more than two dozen financial companies, including BB&T Corp., Sun Trust Banks Inc. and American Express.

Opponents of the bill argue that the same banks getting regulatory easing through the Senate bill also got about $50 billion in taxpayer-funded bailouts during the financial crisis. They note Countrywide Financial, which was at the center of the mortgage crisis, was smaller than some of the banks targeted for relief now.

"There is no reason at all to roll back the rules on these big banks so they can pad their pockets even more – and cut them loose to take on wild risks again," wrote Warren, who before joining the Senate led a congressional oversight panel for the bailout programs.

The Senate bill emerged from lengthy negotiations between Sen. Mike Crapo, the Republican chairman of the banking committee, and several Democratic members on the committee.

The bill has 13 Republican and 13 Democratic or independent co-sponsors, a rare level of bipartisanship for substantive legislation in the current Congress. By contrast, the House effort to roll back Dodd-Frank didn't generate a single Democratic vote in support.

Commercial banks are major players on Capitol Hill, spending $66 million on lobbying Congress last year and $44 million on federal election campaigns in the previous election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign spending. About two-thirds of the money went to Republican campaigns and about a third to Democratic campaigns.

This cycle, commercial banks have targeted their campaign donations to major players on committees with jurisdiction over banking issues, including the incumbent senators in competitive races: Among the top 10 recipients of commercial bank donations are Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Jon Tester of Montana and Republican Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada. All four are co-sponsors of Crapo's bill.

Crapo said the Federal Reserve will have the authority to tailor tougher capital and liquidity requirements for individual banks when it believes it's necessary. For the others, compliance costs should drop.

The Federal Reserve conducts annual stress tests of banks with $50 billion or more in assets. Under the Senate bill, banks with under $100 billion in assets won't have to undergo the Fed's yearly test. Banks with between $100 billion and $250 billion in assets will be exempted from the yearly stress test after 18 months. The Federal Reserve will have authority to accelerate the exemption or extend it.

-by AP reporters Kevin Freking and Marcy Gordon


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