The Politics of Financial Reform's Conference Committee

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Which chamber of Congress will have the most leverage during the conference process for financial reform? Bet on the House. Considering how each body's vote turned out, more decisions may have to be made to appease fickle Representatives than Senators.

If you followed the financial regulation battle in the Senate, then you know it wasn't easy. Cloture barely passed, with precisely the 60-votes needed. But that was the hard part. It only needs a simple majority of 51 to pass the conference report. Since it got 60 votes initially, unless the Conference Committee really screws things up, that should be a cinch.

The House, on the other hand, is an entirely different story. It only passed its financial reform bill by five votes, with 223. It needed a simple majority of 218. And a few of those 223 votes are gone. Rep. Abercrombie (D-HI) resigned in order to focus on his gubernatorial campaign. He was replaced with Republican Charles Djou in a special election. That cuts the margin to four. Two of those four are also no longer in the House, as Robert Wexler (D-FL) resigned and John Murtha (D-PA) passed away. They were both replaced with other Democrats, but their votes aren't as guaranteed as their predecessors' would have been. After all, the financial lobby can be very influential on new Congressmen. There were also seven Democrats who didn't vote, so there's no telling if or how they might vote on the conference report.

So at most, 220 to 222 votes can definitely be counted on -- if the Senate drops all of its controversial provisions allows the final bill to look nearly identical to the one passed by the House. But what if the Senate fights to hold onto some of its more aggressive sections, like its demand that banks place their derivatives desks in a separately capitalized affiliate, and more sweeping authority for the consumer financial protection agency, and somewhat broader prop trading ban? It would only take five votes switching to doom financial reform in the House -- maybe fewer if some of the new Reps don't go along. Meanwhile, the Senate can afford to lose nine.

This will likely result in the final bill more closely resembling that created by the House. Indeed, the White House generally favors the House version as well. But given the relatively tight margins in both chambers, the many of the more controversial provisions in both bills will probably be lost. For example, the House's broader Federal Reserve audit couldn't garner even 51 votes when initially proposed as an amendment. Instead it went with watered-down language. Congress probably would jeopardize the bill by leaving such House provisions in.

Of course, there is a possibility that some House Democrats who voted against the bill -- and there were 27 of them -- could find themselves born-again progressives, if they have become more convinced since December that their constituents like the reform effort. But given regulation's lackluster appeal in recent polls, financial reform might not be a cause they feel like fighting for. So the bill the President eventually signs could be a very 'safe' one, with few aggressive provisions.

For a primer on some of the big outstanding differences that need to be sorted out by the conference committee, see this post. To see what will almost certainly stick, check out this one.

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Daniel Indiviglio was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 through 2011. He is now the Washington, D.C.-based columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He is also a 2011 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow through the Phillips Foundation. More

Indiviglio has also written for Forbes. Prior to becoming a journalist, he spent several years working as an investment banker and a consultant.
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